Voting Rights Act marks 55 years. Here's what you should know

By Ev Andrews and CNN Staff

Published August 6, 2020

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It was enacted on August 6, 1965, in response to voter suppression in the 1960s by state and local governments and law enforcement. The act protects citizens’ right to vote by enforcing the 14th and 15th Amendments, and this year, it reaches its 55th anniversary.

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Here’s how it came to be passed.

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Three young civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi while trying to register Black voters, showing that segregationists were willing to kill to keep African Americans from voting.

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'Bloody Sunday'

Demonstrators faced violence through February and March 1965 as they demanded the right to vote for Black people. March 7 became known as “Bloody Sunday” after the officers attacked 600 marchers in Selma, Alabama, injuring dozens including future Congressman John Lewis who suffered a fractured skull.

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Marches continued to be held at the Edmund Pettus Bridge where “Bloody Sunday” occurred, including ones led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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On March 21, 1965, about 3,200 people marched out of Selma for Montgomery. They walked about 12 miles a day and slept in fields at night. By March 25, the marchers reached the state capitol having grown to a crowd of 25,000.

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The number of months after Bloody Sunday President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

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The number of years of continued voter disenfranchisement based on race following ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 and the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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Over the 55 years of its existence, the act has helped Americans reinforce and protect citizens' right to vote. It has been called the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation Congress has ever passed, according to the Justice Department.


What the act actually did

It provides nationwide voting rights protections, including by prohibiting any state or local law that discriminates against racial minorities, as well as the use of literacy tests to determine the ability to vote.

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Some municipalities, counties and states previously had to get the federal government's approval first before they made any changes to their voting laws and regulations. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the formula used to determine which governments were included in those special rules.

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A split decision

Chief Justice John Roberts explained the key part was struck down in the 5-4 decision because it was no longer relevant to the current voting conditions in those states that were covered. John Lewis called it a “dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act.”

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A 2018 report by the federal Commission on Civil Rights found new state laws have made voting more difficult for minorities and the Justice Department has done less to challenge those discriminatory laws since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling.


Following John Lewis’ death in July, some lawmakers are pushing the Senate to take up a bill passed by the House in 2019 that would restore the key part of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court struck down, as well as name the measure after Lewis.

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