The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the most important civil rights action since the Reconstruction Era. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended legal segregation, the Voting Rights Act vested African-Americans in mostly Confederate states with political power for the first time. The effectiveness of the Act is evident throughout the South today.
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution proclaimed the right of African-Americans to vote, but for the first time the Act provided effective enforcement authority. Within 20 years of the VRA’s enactment, black registration increased from less than one percent to more than 75 percent in states like Alabama and Mississippi, and not long thereafter voting participation by southern African-Americans exceeded that of whites.
Earlier this week, my wife and I visited the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute in Selma, Ala. Commemorating the protest march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, it’s witness to the single most important event leading to the passage of the VRA.
The Museum is located at the east end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Highway 80, which goes through Selma and on to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. Although modest in appearance and artifacts, the Museum’s effective use of photographs, videos and graphics tell the fateful story of the post Civil War era, the civil rights efforts of the 1960s and the tragic story of what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, which occurred on March 7, 1965. The march initially covered only a distance of several hundred yards from the Museum site where Alabama law enforcement officers using billy clubs and tear gas turned back 600 marchers. After the issuance of a Federal court order and the entrance of troops ordered by President Lyndon Johnson, more than 25,000 people finally completed the march to Montgomery on March 25.
Before going to Selma my wife and I had visited friends in Dothan, Ala., where we saw clear evidence of changes in the South brought about in large part by the Voting Rights Act.
The George Washington Carver Museum in Dothan is “…focused on educating individuals of all ages, races and creeds on the rich historical contributions of African-Americans.” In addition to telling the story of Mr. Carver’s research on the peanut in the local area, contributions dating from the early 1800s of 18 distinguished but little-known African-Americans in science and technology are commemorated.
The old Dothan electric power and water building has been converted to a museum, the current exhibition of which is a display of quilts made by women of the African-American community of Gee’s Bend, Ala. It will soon be featured on Alabama Public Television.
On a more personal note, I witnessed a mixed-race couple of apparent high school age walking arm-in-arm in a public park. In Selma, I heard a waitress greet a black patron as “Honey” as casually as if he were her brother; no one batted an eye.
Such social behavior and public tributes to African-Americans were unthinkable not too many years ago. They are witness to the American purpose to “establish justice” and “secure the blessings of liberty” enumerated in the Preamble to the Constitution.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aid and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.