Taylor Branch, a leading historian on civil rights, has said that the two most important pieces of civil rights legislation in the 20th century are the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that became law in 1965. Both measures were signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The Voting Rights Act was specifically designed to eliminate or suspend the use of literacy tests and similar devises as prerequisites to registration and voting and to provide for the appointment of federal examiners to register persons who meet valid state requirements.
During the 1964 presidential election, African Americans continued to face great difficulty, simply trying to register to vote. Voter registration drives were met with bitter and sometimes violent opposition.
The 1965 law’s suspension of literacy tests and other discriminatory voter
qualifications applied to all states and counties in which less than 50 percent of the 1964 voting-age population was registered. A total of seven such states were affected: Alaska, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. There were also 26 counties in North Carolina and one county in Arizona (which had a large number of Apache Indians) covered by the special provisions of the Act.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was readopted and strengthened in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006.
The Voting Rights Act also:
- Prohibits the use of residency requirements to prevent citizens from voting for President and Vice-President of the United States;
- Gives federal courts the authority to impose the special provisions of the act in jurisdictions that were not already covered;
- Requires the appointment of federal observers to monitor elections in jurisdictions covered under the special provisions of the Act; and
- Requires certain jurisdictions to provide assistance to non-English-speaking citizens during voter registration and elections and to publish information on voting and voter registration in languages in addition to English.