Friday, January 14, 2011

The 1965 Voting Rights Act

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I discuss the struggle to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its impact on the South.

“Bloody Sunday" -the violent attack by white Southerners as civilo rights protestors attempted to march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery -- followed by the murder of Violet Liuzzo -- a white civil rights supporter who was fatally shot on Alabama's Highway 80 while she drove a black activist home -- gave momentum to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The act prohibited devices employed by Southern legislatures to keep African Americans from voting, such as literacy tests, which were supposedly equally enforced for black and white voters but were manipulated to systematically deny African Americans the ballot. The law also empowered the U.S. Justice Department to monitor elections in order to prevent intimidation and harassment of black voters in districts with a history of such behavior.

Resistance from Southern senators, who sensed a changing tide of public opinion, proved half-hearted. Sixty-six senators co-sponsored the bill, just one short of the number needed to end a filibuster. Southern efforts to filibuster collapsed quickly. Longtime civil rights leader Roy Wilkins afterward described Southern resistance to the bill as “lame.” “That year, they (Southern senators) had neither their old energy nor the sympathy of the country behind them.”

On August 3, the House passed the measure by a 4-1 margin, and the next day the Senate passed the legislation 79-18. President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law August 6 in the President’s Room, where in 1861 Abraham Lincoln signed a law declaring free any slaves forced into service with the Confederate Army. Johnson passed out 89 pens he used to sign the law, with Rosa Parks (who years ago started the Montgomery bus boycott) and Vivian Malone (who had to be escorted into the University of Alabama by federal marshals when the university was integrated in 1963) two of the recipients.

A jubilant atmosphere attended the signing ceremony, but Johnson knew the political dangers of pushing for such revolutionary change. “I have signed away the South for a generation,” he is said to have commented after he signed the bill into law. Johnson had no way of knowing if African Americans would vote in significant numbers after the bill’s enactment. He could count, however, on an angry Southern white backlash. He would live long enough to see his sad prophecy come true, as former segregationist Democrats essentially became segregationist Republicans across Dixie.

But as a result of this law and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, segregation began to fade across the South. “The old ways died hardest in rural areas, where significant resistance lingered for years and where even the long arm of the Justice Department seldom reached,” the historian Allen Matusow wrote. “But the remarkable collapse of segregation in the urban South, the ease with which white waitresses learned to be polite to black patrons, the routine mixing of races at lunch counters and theaters – all this confirmed the liberal faith that law, at least sometimes, could help change custom.” School desegregation did not keep pace with integration of public accommodation, and decades later many students across the country would still attend overwhelmingly white or predominantly black and brown schools.

But in terms of black voter registration, the impact of the 1965 law was dramatic. In the states of Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Alabama, black registration overall went from 31 percent to 57 percent by the late 1960s. In the Deep South, the results were more dramatic, with black registration climbing from 32 to 60 percent in Louisiana, 19 to 53 percent in Alabama, and from 6 percent to 44 percent in Mississippi. In Dallas County, Alabama, where the Selma campaign had just taken place, the number of registered voters rocketed from 320 to 6,789. The number of black elected officials in the South also sharply climbed. In the six states mentioned above, the number of black elected officials grew from 70 to about 400.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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