On this day in 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote. The bill made it illegal to impose restrictions on federal, state and local elections that were designed to deny the vote to blacks.
Johnson assumed the presidency in November 1963 upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the presidential race of 1964, Johnson was officially elected in a landslide victory and used this mandate to push for legislation he believed would improve the American way of life, which included stronger voting-rights laws. A recent march in Alabama in support of voting rights, during which blacks were beaten by state troops, shamed Congress and the president into passing the law, meant to enforce the 15th Amendment of the Constitution ratified by Congress in 1870.
In a speech to Congress on March 15, 1965, Johnson had outlined the devious ways in which election officials denied African-American citizens the vote. Blacks attempting to vote were often told by election officials that they gotten the date, time or polling place wrong, that the officials were late or absent, that they possessed insufficient literacy skills or had filled out an application incorrectly. Often African Americans, whose population suffered a high rate of illiteracy due to centuries of oppression and poverty, would be forced to take literacy tests, which they inevitably failed. Johnson also told Congress that voting officials, primarily in southern states, had been known to force black voters to “recite the entire constitution or explain the most complex provisions of state laws”–a task most white voters would have been hard-pressed to accomplish. In some cases, even blacks with college degrees were turned away from the polls.
Although the Voting Rights Act passed, state and local enforcement of the law was weak and it was often outright ignored, mainly in the South and in areas where the proportion of blacks in the population was high and their vote threatened the political status quo. Still, the Voting Rights Act gave African-American voters the legal means to challenge voting restrictions and vastly improved voter turnout. In Mississippi alone, voter turnout among blacks increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969. In 1970, President Richard Nixon extended the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and lowered the eligible voting age for all voters to 18.