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“The Act Has Not Failed”: A Call to Extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act of 1965—called “the most successful civil rights law in the nation’s history” by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—was enacted in order to force Southern states and localities to allow all citizens of voting age to vote in public elections. Although the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed citizens the right to vote regardless of race, discriminatory requirements, such as literacy tests, disenfranchised many African Americans in the South. In 1965, following the murder of a voting rights activist by an Alabama sheriff’s deputy and the subsequent attack by state troopers on a massive protest march in Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson pressed Congress to pass a voting rights bill with “teeth”. The Act, signed into law on August 6, applied to states or counties where fewer than half of the citizens of voting age were registered in 1964—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and numerous counties in North Carolina. For these areas, the law banned literacy tests, appointed Federal examiners to oversee election procedures, and, according to the Act’s controversial Section 5, required approval by the U.S. Attorney General of future changes to election laws. In the following letter to a 1969 Senate subcommittee hearing on extending the Act, New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr., provided statistics to show the law’s effect. The position described in the letter was Attorney General John Mitchell’s proposal to replace Section 5 with an oversight mechanism more amenable to the white South. Ultimately, on June 22, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law a bill that extended the Act’s provisions—including Section 5—for five additional years, and in addition, lowered the voting age throughout the country to 18.

July 22, 1969.

Hon. Samuel J. Ervin, Jr.

Chairman, Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, Judiciary Committee, United States Senate, Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Chairman: The ability to control one’s own destiny and have a proportional voice in directing the course of one’s country is the foundation of the democratic principle upon which this nation purports to rest. In the fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, this right was assured to all citizens of the United States regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Amendment commands the state governments not to deny the right to vote to anyone on this basis.

For 95 years, this promise was ignored and often repudiated. In 1965, however, the Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act. The Act stands as a landmark of political equality as it implements the Constitutional mandate. However, the hedging, indecision, and recent pronouncements of the present Administration concerning extension of this Act might prove to be catastrophic for the rich promises of democracy contained in the law.

At present, we have three courses of action with regard to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The first is to do nothing and merely allow the integral parts of the act to expire (as of August 6, 1970). Our second alternative is to accept Attorney General Mitchell’s position. Thirdly, we can extend the application of the Act and then explore other avenues to broaden the scope of the Act. As a sponsor of S. 2456, I have formally approved the last alternative—the only approach we can choose in good conscience.

Those who would urge that we permit the Act to expire have two possible arguments: The Act has failed to fulfill its objectives; or, the Act has served its total purpose, thus it is useless. Statistics alone will invalidate these arguments.

Here are facts that clearly demonstrate great strides under the Act:

[In percent]






South Carolina
















These figures represent non-white voters registered to vote immediately prior to the passage of the Act, as compared with the present, in the six Southern states primarily covered under the legislation. This laudable increase of 800,000 new voters has contributed to the election of 400 black officials in the past four years.

The Act has not failed. Rather, it has created a political citizenry that is essential if our legislators and elected officials are to represent all Americans. Token representation is not democracy. “Political power” is democratic and within the American spirit.

Source: Amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 91st Congress, 1st and 2nd Sessions, on S. 818, S. 2456, S. 2507, and Title IV of S. 2029, July 9, 10, 11, and 30, 1969, February 18, 19, 24, 25, and 26, 1970. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970.