Freedom Summer and the March on Washington were shining achievements of the civil rights movement, but the Voting Rights Act is arguably the movement’s crown jewel. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the act to stop racial discrimination from limiting individuals’ access to voting, saying, “This act flows from a clear and simple wrong. Its only purpose is to right that wrong.” November’s midterm elections will be the first since the Supreme Court curtailed the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and many people wonder if that clear and simple wrong has actually been righted. Alumnus Luis Fuentes-Rohwer (’90, J.D. ’97, Ph.D. ’01) is one of them.
Fuentes-Rohwer, a professor of law and Harry T. Ice Faculty Fellow at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, studies the intersection between race and democracy, and, in particular, the Voting Rights Act. “To be sure,” he says, “we have made much progress. But I don’t think we are quite ready to discard federal voting protections yet.”
The Voting Rights Act: Before and After
In 1870, the 15th Amendment gave African American men the right to vote. (All women got the right to vote in 1920.) But state and local governments—particularly in the Confederacy—spent much of the following century trying to prevent them from using it. African Americans who tried to vote might be told they had the wrong day or the wrong polling place. They were assessed poll taxes or even told they had to recite the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow before they could cast a ballot. The discriminatory tactics were broad and varied, but the Voting Rights Act made them all illegal.
The Justice Department estimates that in the Voting Rights Act’s first five years, “almost as many blacks registered to vote in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina as in the entire preceding century before 1965.” The act included numerous general provisions, along with special provisions that applied only to problem regions. However, to understand the effects of the way the Supreme Court changed the law in 2013, Fuentes-Rohwer says, we should note two aspects of the act in particular.