“Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield,” President Lyndon Johnson said on August 6, 1965, when he signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
The VRA quickly became known as the most important piece of modern civil rights legislation and one of the most consequential laws ever passed by Congress. It led to the abolition of literacy tests and poll taxes; made possible the registration of millions of minority voters; forced states with a history of voting discrimination to clear electoral changes with the federal government to prevent future discrimination; and laid the foundation for generations of minority elected officials.
Inside the US Capitol Rotunda, LBJ announced the signing of the bill flanked by a bust of President Lincoln, who exactly 104 years earlier had signed the Confiscation Act freeing Confederate slaves. Among the many civil rights leaders present on that historic day forty-eight years ago was John Lewis, the 25-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who had nearly died four months earlier marching for the right to vote in Selma, Alabama. He was the only veteran of the “Bloody Sunday” march to attend the signing ceremony, as historian Gary May notes in his new history of the VRA, “Bending Toward Justice.” Lewis remembered that day in August 1965 as “a high point in modern American, probably the nation’s finest hour in terms of civil rights.”
Twenty-one years later, Lewis won election to Congress from Georgia’s 5th House district, representing the hometown of his idol Martin Luther King Jr. He has the pen LBJ gave him after signing the VRA framed in his Atlanta home and a bust of the thirty-sixth president in his Washington office. Without the VRA, there would be no Congressman Lewis or Senator Rubio or President Obama. “When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act,” Lewis said on a trip to Alabama in March, “he helped free and liberate all of us.”
Consider how the VRA transformed American democracy:
• In 1965, only 31 percent of eligible black voters were registered to vote the in the seven Southern states originally covered by the VRA, compared to 72 percent of white voters. The number of black registered voters was as low as 6.7 percent in Mississippi. In Selma, only 393 of 15,000 eligible black voters were registered when LBJ introduced the VRA in March 1965.
Today, 73 percent of black voters are registered to vote, according to the US Census and black voter turnout exceeded white turnout in 2012 for the first time in recorded history.