For Educators: Voting Rights Act of 1965
Using primary document sources, students will learn about the creation and ratification of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the history of the Congressional Black Caucus’ on-going efforts to ensure the enforcement of the law and the reauthorization of portions that had an expiration date. Students will also learn about the power of voting in a democratic society and why it is important to protect this right for all citizens.
Grade Level: 8-12
Essential Question: What social and political structures, particularly in the South, galvanized the protest and advocacy for an eventual ratification of the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
National U.S. History Standards
Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
Era 10: Contemporary United States (1968 to the present)
National Social Studies Standards
How does the government established by the Constitution Embody the Purposes, Values, and Principles of American Democracy?
National Standards for Civics and Government
Content Standard V: What are the roles of the citizen in American Democracy?
National Visual Arts Standards
Select an activity below to view full activity guidelines:
Warm-Up Activity: Know, Want, and Learned (KWL) chart organizer (pdf)
Following the Civil War, African Americans received citizenship rights through a number of legislative achievements including the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 which gave African Americans the right to vote and prohibited racial discrimination in voting. Even with these protections in place, many southern states resisted racial equality and skirted the law by administering tests designed to prevent African Americans from registering to vote and thus keeping them from participating in the electoral process.
In March 1965, on a bridge outside Selma, Alabama, civil rights activists, led by Dr. King and others, took to the streets in a peaceful protest for voting rights for African Americans. They were met with clubs and violence. Many were beaten and severely injured, including a young activist named John Lewis—later to be Congressman Lewis.
But the activists did not march in vain. Television brought this conflict of angry violence against peaceful, moral protest into living rooms across America.
Five days later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, introduced to Congress the idea of a Voting Rights Act in what is considered to be one of his best speeches:
“Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. Yet the harsh fact is that in many places, in this country, men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists and he manages to present himself to register, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on his application. And if he manages to fill out an application he is given a test. The register is the sole judge of whether he passes his test. He may be asked to recite the entire constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of state laws. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin. This bill will strike down restrictions to voting in all elections—federal, State, and local—which have been used to deny Negroes the right to vote.”
President Johnson announced to a joint session of Congress that he would bring them an effective voting rights bill. Echoing the spiritual anthem of the civil rights movement, he said simply, “We Shall Overcome.”
On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, hailed by many as the most effective civil rights law ever.
The Act outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes as a way of assessing whether anyone was fit or unfit to vote. As far as Johnson was concerned, all you needed to vote was American citizenship and the registration of your name on an electoral list. No form of hindrance to this would be tolerated by the courts.
The impact of this act was dramatic. By the end of 1966, only four out of the traditional 13 Southern states had less than 50% of African Americans registered to vote. By 1968, even hard-line Mississippi had 59% of African Americans registered. In the longer term, far more African Americans were elected into public office. A few years later, when the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was established in 1971, there were thirteen members of the U.S. House of Representatives and one black member of the U.S. Senate. The Act was the boost that the civil rights cause needed to move swiftly along. It was a combination of demonstrations and federal support which paved the way for this important legislation. President Johnson proved this and his efforts were labeled by some as a “legislative revolution.”
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) leads the fight to protect the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The CBC’s tireless efforts to protect the rights of underrepresented people resulted in the amendments and reauthorization of various provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006. Since its inception, the CBC has introduced and co-sponsored legislation ensuring that all Americans have fair and equal opportunity to participate in the election process.
Recently, the CBC members rallied in support of the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006. Initially the bill was stalled in the House, but the Senate voted unanimously to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was passed and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006.
Activity 1: Interpretation: What is the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
For this activity the students will read and analyze the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and discuss why this act was needed despite the existence of the 15th Amendment.
Class Time Needed: two or three class sessions
To begin this activity, ask the students to respond to the “What I Know” column on their KWL chart (pdf) about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After they have completed this task, the teacher will play the following videos:
Based on the information presented in the videos, what event or discriminating practices motivated President Johnson to address Congress about providing federal protection for the rights of African Americans and other minorities to vote? (The March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Jim Crow segregation laws, tactics to prevent voters from registering, etc.)
Tell the students that they will now have the opportunity to read portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was discussed in the short videos to learn about and understand the impact of the act then and now. This reading activity also gives the students an opportunity to review and interpret an actual bill.
Divide the class into five smaller groups. Print a copy of the document for each group.
Assign each group (see assignments below) a section of the Act for them to read and interpret its meaning. Remember, a word or phrase has been given to each assigned section as a clue to the students in interpreting the passage.
Give each group a large sheet of white paper and marker. Once they have read the passage within their group, they should write on the paper the group’s interpretation of what the requirements are of that section of the act.
In a large group discussion, have each group share their interpretation of their assigned portion of the Act. After each presentation post the written interpretations on the wall for reference throughout the lesson.
Based on your interpretation of the act, what impact do you think it had on changing laws and practices to prevent voting registration in the 60s and now?
To stimulate further discussion about the challenges of ensuring every American’s right to vote, refer the students to the
Leadership Conference and Civil Rights (LCCR) web site to view
video testimonials from real people whose lives have been affected by the Voting Rights Act. These are contemporary stories supporting the need to renew and enforce the requirements of the Act.
Drawing from class discussions, video viewings and readings, engage the students in creative writing assignments. These exercises will enable the students to view the issue from the perspective of another person.
Creative Writing 1: Write a short story or poem based on the photo image: “Voting Rights Poster and Man on Grass.” To focus students’ observation of this image, share with them a copy of the Photograph Analysis Worksheet. The information they draw from reviewing the image may be incorporated in their writing.
Creative Writing 2: The Voting Rights Act Impact on other Minorities
Have the students write a narrative description of a discriminating experience that could impact one’s ability to vote, i.e. personal experience or an immigrant American experience, or the elderly.
Ask the students to now complete column two, “What I Want to Know” of their KWL chart organizer.
Activity 2: Obstacles to Full Participation in the Election Process
In the years immediately following the Civil War, landmark legislation granted African Americans citizenship rights, including the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which gave African Americans the right to vote and prohibited racial discrimination in voting. But for years, many southern states resisted racial equality and skirted the law by administering tests designed to prevent African Americans from registering to vote in the first place. From 1964 through 1965, the State of Alabama used 100 different literacy tests to make it difficult for people to “study” for the test. Applicants were asked to pick a test at random from a loose-leaf notebook. However, many organizations like Miles College in Birmingham, Alabama conducted voter education classes to help individuals to prepare to take the test.
Black citizens who managed to pass the registration tests were often threatened, fired from their jobs, or beaten. In other states like Louisiana, they had to be identified by two registered voters. In states where the Ku Klux Klan maintained power—Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi, for example—scare tactics and lynching intimidated many African Americans from trying to register at all.
Class Time Needed: one class session
Share with each student a copy of the registration test as well as a copy of the Written Document Analysis guide sheet. Using the guide sheet, instruct the students to review the test.
Now share with the students the Poll tax receipt document. Using the Written Document Analysis guide sheet allow the students time to study it.
To deepen students’ understanding of the impact of these and other discriminatory practices on individuals, assign the students two short readings of testimonies from the book, Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South, by William Chafe. The book also comes with a CD-ROM and DVD of individual testimonies. The recommended readings are:
Have the students share with their family or community members copies of these documents and interview them about experiences they may have had trying to vote. Invite family members to your classroom to share their experience.
Activity 3: Protecting Our Right to Vote
In 1970, Congress extended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for five years. Section 5 focused on the use of discriminatory tests and other devices like the poll tax designed to exclude certain individuals from the voting process. These extensions required that jurisdictions with a history of illegal discrimination obtain permission from either the Justice Department or a panel of federal district court judges before changing any voting practices.
In 1975, Congress extended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for seven more years. The definition of “test or device” was expanded to include the practice of providing election information, including ballots, only in English in states or political subdivisions where members of a single language minority constituted more than five percent of the citizens of voting age. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan from Texas proposed to expand the “test or device” term to include ballots printed only in English in areas with a high concentration of Spanish-speaking Americans. This became a major issue during the debates for the extension of the act.
Class Time Needed: two class sessions
Tell the students that they are going to analyze Congressional documents from 1975 to gather information about the debates and issues raised by members of Congress about the impact of providing election information and ballots in other languages like Spanish and securing the extension of the act.
Divide the class into small groups. Distribute to each group copies of the documents, 1975 CBC memo to Caucus Members from Congressman Charles B. Rangel and the handwritten letter from CBC member Parren Mitchell. Using the written document analysis guide sheet, allow the students to review the documents.
Ask the students to share what information can be gathered from the documents. See sample questions below:
Q: Who were members of the CBC in 1975?
A: Charles Rangel, Yvonne Burke, Walter Fauntroy, Andrew Young, Shirley Chisholm, William Clay, Cardiss Collins, John Conyers, Ronald Dellums, Charles Diggs, Harold Ford, Sr., Augustus Hawkins, Barbara Jordan, Ralph Metcalfe, Parren Mitchell, Robert N.C. Nix, and Louis Stokes
Q: What states did they represent?
A: New York – Rangel and Chisholm; California – Burke, Dellums, Hawkins; District of Columbia – Fauntroy; Georgia – Young; Missouri – Clay; Michigan – Collins, Conyers, and Diggs; Tennessee – Ford; Texas – Jordan; Illinois – Metcalfe; Maryland – Mitchell; Pennsylvania – Nix; Ohio – Stokes
Q: What role did Charles Rangel play in the CBC in 1975?
Q: What was the status of the act?
A: It needed to be reauthorized
Q: What was the major issue for extending the act?
A: Ballots and election materials written for Spanish speaking citizens
Q: As a U.S. House Representative from Texas, why do you think this issue was very important to Congresswoman Barbara Jordan?
A: Texas had one of the biggest Spanish-speaking populations at the time
Tell the students that their group will play the role of news reporters. Each group is to prepare a news announcement based on the information provided in the documents as well as Barbara Jordan’s February 19, 1975 speech to extend the Act with the inclusion of addressing the needs of Spanish-speaking citizens as recorded in the Congressional Record.
Engage your students in a debate about the relevance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to individual lives and American citizens’ right to practice civic responsibility. Based on current events, have the students prepare a persuasive argument in response to one of the following statements:
For a recent event related to the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, listen to a National Public Radio report, July 14, 2008 on voting fraud activity in Alabama.
For additional primary documents see the National Archives web site for the following:
A timeline is a calendar of events that have occurred in a day, a month or several years. Illustrations or images are often used to give a visual chronology of key events highlighted on the timeline. Using the Avoice Voting Rights Act Timeline, arrange the students in teams and assign each team a period of events on the timeline. Tell them to use images and drawings to create a collage interpretation of their assigned period. In the classroom or school hallway, create a timeline exhibit about the history of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Consider including the students written assignments and oral interviews.
Amendment: an alteration of or addition to a motion, bill, constitution, etc.
Bill of Rights: a document containing a formal statement of rights; i.e. a summary of fundamental rights and privileges guaranteed to a people against violation by the state&emdash;used especially in reference to the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution.
Caucus: a faction within a legislative body that pursues its interests through the legislative process, i.e. the Congressional Black Caucus.
Civil Rights Movement: movement in the United States beginning in the 1960s, led primarily by blacks, to establish the civil rights of individual black citizens.
Constitution: the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it.
Ku Klux Klan: a secret society formed in the South after the Civil War to resist the emancipation of slaves and suppress African Americans through terrorist tactics.
Legislature: an elected branch of government having the power to make laws.
Literacy Test: a test many southern states administered to prevent African Americans from registering to vote.
Poll Taxes: a tax required as a qualification for voting. After the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution extended the vote to blacks in 1870, many southern states instituted poll taxes to prevent blacks from voting. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1964, prohibits poll taxes for federal elections.
Primary Documents: primary sources that may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, and documents produced by government agencies.
Ratify: an authoritative statement, i.e. to formally approve a law.
Reauthorization: the process by which Congress prescribes changes, additions, and deletions in the re-approval and extension of a current law.
US Congress: the legislature of the United States government.
Vote: a formal expression of a wish will, or choice made by an act or process of voting.
Voter Registration: the requirement of citizens to register with their local board of elections before being qualified to vote.
Visit the Avoice exhibit on the Voting Rights Act.
Chafe, William H. Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South. The New Press, New York. 2001
Marable, Manning, Leith Muelings. Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: An African American Anthology. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland. 2003
Pauley, Garth. Lyndon B. Johnson’s American Promise: The 1965 Voting Rights Act. Palgrave MacMillan, New York. 1995
Taylor, William. Voting Rights in America: Continuing the Quest for Full Participation. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, IL. 1992
Aretha, David. Selma and the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Movement Series. Morgan Reynolds Publishing, Greensboro, North Carolina. 2007
Colman, Penny. Fannie Lou Hamer and the Fight for the Vote. Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Connecticut. 1993
Harvey, Miles, Women’s Voting Rights: Story of 19th Amendment. The Children’s Press, San Francisco, California. 1998
Letwin, Laura. Fannie Lou Hamer: Fighting for the Right to Vote. Enslow Publishers, Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. 2002
Lusane, Clarence. No Easy Victories: Black Americans and the Vote. Franklin Watts Publisher, London, United Kingdom. 1996
Scott, John H. with Cleo Scott Brown. Witness to the Truth: My Struggle for Human Rights in Louisiana. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia. 2003
Scriabine, Christine. Black Voting Rights: The Fight for Equality. Jackdaw Publishers, Amawalk, New York. 1992 (Out-of-Print, must obtain from local library)
Avoice: African American Voice in Congress
Congressional Black Caucus (CBC)
Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF)
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
The Library of Congress
The National Archives
The National Park Service: Teaching with Historic Places
The Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March: Shaking the Conscience of the Nation
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 lesson unit was created through the combined efforts of:
Adrena Ifill, Project Director, Avoice, CBCF Virtual Library Project
Alison Kootstra, Project Coordinator, Avoice, CBCF Virtual Library Project
R. Maria Marable-Bunch, Education Consultant
This lesson unit was reviewed by the following educators:
Michael Bartlett, Ph.D., Teacher, Stone Mountain, CA
Rita Johnson, Principal, Washington, DC
Lynn Long, Curriculum Specialist, former Principal, Washington, DC
Tanya Brown Merriman, Curriculum Specialist, Chicago, IL
Mwasaa Sherard, Teacher, Stone Mountain, GA
Sonya Fordham, Teacher, Dorchester, SC
Mable Roche, Teacher, New Orleans, LA
This project was made possible by the generous support of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Dell Inc. and The University of Texas at Austin.