Twenty years ago blacks were virtually disenfranchised throughout the South. Now their votes may elect our next President.
When civil rights protesters began the trek from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965 to dramatize the plight of disfranchised blacks, Alabama state troopers dispersed them by cracking demonstrators over the head with billy clubs. Witnessing this bloody spectacle on the television news, the President, Congress, and the public recoiled in outrage. On March 15 President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a special address to a joint session of Congress calling upon lawmakers to remove the barriers to black voting rights. “It is not just Negroes,” the Chief Executive from Texas eloquently told his audience, “but really it is all of us, who must overcome. … And we shall overcome.”
Following these words, Congress moved swiftly to enact a strong measure to treat voting ills in the South. The bill President Johnson signed into law on August 6, 1965, suspended for five years the operation of literacy tests in states and counties where less than 50 percent of the adult population were registered or had voted in the 1964 presidential election. This formula covered the areas with the most flagrant suffrage abuses—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and parts of North Carolina. (Texas and sections of Florida were added in 1975.) The law also empowered the attorney general of the United States to dispatch federal examiners to act as registrars in these jurisdictions. Furthermore, local officials now had to submit all changes in electoral procedures to the Justice Department or the federal district court in Washington, D.C., before they could go into effect. Until a monitored state proved that it had not allowed racial discrimination in voting for five years, the act would remain in force. In addition Congress instructed the Justice Department to bring litigation challenging the constitutionality of the poll tax, and within a year this levy had been voided by the courts.
The ink had hardly dried on Johnson’s signature when the Justice Department sprang into motion. One of the first places selected for federal examiners was Selma. In a single day, 381 blacks, more than all those who had been able to enroll in the previous sixty-five years, registered to vote. First in the line of applicants, Mrs. Ardies Mauldin received her franchise certificate after a straightforward hearing from the federal registrar and commented: “It didn’t take but a few minutes. I don’t know why it couldn t have been like that in the first place.”
Her experience was repeated many times across the seven affected states. In 1969, when Johnson left the White House, over 60 percent of adult blacks in these states had qualified to cast ballots. In Mississippi, where only 7 percent of eligible blacks were registered in 1964, the figure rose to a striking 66.5 percent. No longer allowed to administer literacy exams, Southern registrars were themselves responsible for enrolling most of the nearly one-half million new black applicants in the region.
Nevertheless, Southern blacks had not yet achieved political equality. The legacy of fear and intimidation that had kept blacks as political outcasts for generations had not been fully broken. By the early 1980s black registration in the targeted Southern states still hovered around 60 percent, the level it had reached more than a decade before. The gap in percentage between black and white enrollment had closed considerably, but it remained at about twelve points. Though the number of black elected officials in this seven-state area had skyrocketed to approximately two thousand, this was far below the percentage of blacks in the population.
The obstacles that continued to interfere with black political advancement convinced lawmakers to extend the protection of the Voting Rights Act. On three occasions, in 1970, 1975, and 1982, Congress renewed its landmark statute. Not only did the legislature preserve the vital sections of the law, it also expanded them. As a result, literacy tests were banned permanently, eighteen-year-olds—black and white—received the right to vote, and foreign-language minorities throughout the nation were granted the same benefits as were blacks. In addition the legislators extended the act into the twenty-first century and made it easier for civil rights plaintiffs to prove in court that their voting rights were being assailed.
Remarkably, the law was strengthened despite presidential opposition. Republicans Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and, most recently, Ronald Reagan all challenged the civil rights forces in Congress only to capitulate in the face of solid legislative support within both parties—North and South—and widespread public approval for protecting black enfranchisement. The most dramatic examples of this national consensus were displayed in 1975 and 1982 when a majority of Southern congressmen voted to renew the Voting Rights Act. Rep. John Buchanan of Alabama summed up the sentiment of his Southern colleagues: “The increased participation of black Americans in the political process through the protections afforded in this act, notwithstanding the fears and dire predictions concerning its effects on States like mine which were voiced in 1965, has hurt our State approximately as much as black participation has hurt Bear Bryant’s football team or the University of Alabama’s basketball team.”
In striving toward political equality, blacks nationwide are working mainly within the Democratic party. During the New Deal, blacks abandoned the GOP for the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the subsequent civil rights records of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson cemented their allegiance to the Democrats. For years Northem blacks have figured prominently in swinging the outcome of close presidential elections. Concentrated in large urban centers in states rich with electoral votes, blacks contributed to the margin of victory obtained by Democratic candidates in 1948 and 1960. The passage of the Voting Rights Act for the first time gave black Southerners the same kind of political leverage. In creating a large black electorate in the South, the act offset conservative white defections to the Republican party and helped install a Democrat in the White House in 1976.
Whatever the final result of the forthcoming presidential contest, blacks appear determined to use their ballots to gain political and economic power. In 1984 and in every future election their burgeoning influence at the polls must be taken seriously by those contending for the highest elected office in the land. This fact is undoubtedly one of the most striking changes in American politics in this century.