On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The Civil Rights Division takes this opportunity to commemorate the 57th anniversary of that momentous occasion, which would not have occurred without the sacrifices of activists like those who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to call for voting rights for Black Americans. In what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday,’ marchers were brutally attacked by state troopers while attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Countless Americans watching the television coverage of the mayhem were shocked by images of their fellow citizens being ruthlessly beaten by police officers for peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights.
Galvanized by the events in Selma, President Johnson called for the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, ending his speech with the powerful, well-known refrain: we shall overcome. Congress met the moment by passing the Act, one of the most important and successful pieces of civil rights legislation in United States history. It aims to make the promise of the ballot box a reality for all Americans by eliminating legal barriers that prevent racial and language minority voters from having the opportunity to participate in our democracy on an equal footing.
The Voting Rights Act would prove to be transformative, enfranchising millions of Americans for the first time and empowering many minority voters to elect candidates of their choice to public office. At every level of government, we now see officeholders who are more representative of America’s racial and ethnic diversity, evidence of the remarkable progress that has been made since 1965, thanks to the Act’s passage. Many of its provisions, moreover, remain critical to protecting the right to vote today.
Despite the progress that’s been made, we know that many Americans’ right to vote remains under threat and that much remains to be done to achieve fully the goal of eliminating the racial discrimination in voting that inspired the Act’s passage. Some of the current threats involve the resurgence of old tactics: improper purging of the voting rolls, moving polling places to make it more difficult for minority citizens to vote, or using redistricting plans that dilute minority voting strength. But some of them are new: cutting back on forms of voting like early voting or vote by mail that citizens have increasingly come to rely on, engaging in online disinformation campaigns, or limiting the provision of food or water to citizens waiting in long lines to cast their votes.
In the face of these challenges, as Attorney General Merrick Garland has said, “the Department of Justice will never stop working to protect the democracy to which all Americans are entitled.” For example, just this past year, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice filed two lawsuits under the Voting Rights Act against the State of Texas (here and here) and Galveston County, and filed amicus briefs or statements of interest in VRA cases in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota, and Texas (here and here) and worked on a number of other voting matters. The Department also filed briefs in VRA or other voting matters in the Third, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits as well as the U.S. Supreme Court in Merrill v. Milligan and Merrill v. Caster, an important matter involving Alabama’s 2021 congressional districting plan.
We at the Civil Rights Division will continue to protect the right to vote by using all of the tools available under the Voting Rights Act as well as the Civil Rights Act, Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, National Voter Registration Act, Help America Vote Act, and Americans with Disabilities Act, among others. The Department of Justice will not yield until all eligible citizens can register, vote, and have their vote counted, and election rules and systems are fair to all voters regardless of their race or language minority status.
For more information about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, please visit https://www.justice.gov/crt/statutes-enforced-voting-section#vra or call the department’s toll-free hotline at (800) 253-3931. To access other voting-related resources from the Department of Justice, please visit https://www.justice.gov/voting.