Congress Protects the Right to Vote: The Voting Rights Act of 1965
Using facsimiles of historical records from the files of the U.S. House of Representative Judiciary Committee, students will evaluate evidence and consider the constitutional issues that the committee encountered as it deliberated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Students will examine the concept of federalism and weigh the proper balance of powers between Federal and state governments when protecting the right to vote.
By analyzing evidence reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee related to the Voting Rights Act, students must wrestle with the same issues faced by the committee as it created landmark civil rights legislation. Ten primary source documents allow students to see multiple perspectives which enable them to evaluate Congress's actions and assess whether the Federal Government should have taken over from the states the power to qualify and register voters.
Did the evidence presented to Congress in 1965 support the position that Federal Government action was necessary to ensure African Americans' right to vote?
Recommended Grade Levels:
Grades 7 – 12
American History; U.S. Government; Civics
Topics included in this lesson:
Voting rights, civil rights, federalism, the Constitution
Historical Overview of Voting Rights:
This short overview provides background information on the events in Congress and the nation around the time the Voting Rights Act was debated.
Activity 1: Assessing the State of Voting Rights (Time required: 15 minutes)
In April 1965, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives began a series of hearings on the proposed Voting Rights Act. The first witness was the U.S. Attorney General, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach. During his testimony, he submitted to the committee several tables of statistics related to voting. Direct students to analyze the data from these tables to form an understanding of the situation in 1965 relating to white and nonwhite voters in certain states.
- To what region of the country do most of these statistics relate?
- What information is compared?
- What general pattern do you notice relating to the percent of white and nonwhite registered voters?
- To what place do the statistics in this table relate?
- What general pattern do you notice relating to the total numbers of white to nonwhite voting age populations? Which group is larger?
- What general pattern do you notice relating to the percentages of white and nonwhite registered voters? Which group is larger?
- What anomaly exists in the statistics of percentages of white registered voters? How could these numbers be explained? What problem is suggested by these numbers?
Activity 2: Weighing the Evidence in the Committee (Time required: 45 minutes)
Explain to students that the qualification of voters traditionally had been determined by the states rather than the Federal Government, in accordance with Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution. However, the 15th Amendment also gave Congress the power to guarantee the right to vote regardless of race or color. (For a more in-depth student activity on this topic, use Worksheet 1 to compare the Constitutional clauses.) In 1965, Congress debated the Voting Rights Act, which would authorize the Federal Government to set rules of eligibility for registering to vote—a power which had previously been practiced by state governments. At issue was whether or not there was a need for Federal action on the matter and whether Federal exercise of this power was an infringement of the rights of states under the concept of federalism.
In addition to the statistics on voting presented by Attorney General Katzenbach, Congress collected information and points of view from a variety of sources to aid in the creation of voting rights legislation. This is usually done in committees, after which the committee reports a bill to the full chamber for debate and amendment. In this activity, students in small groups will analyze types of evidence presented to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee in 1965 when it considered voting rights legislation. After the small groups share, the students will have been exposed to a number of points of view, just as the congressional committee was.
- Small Group Analysis:
- The documents studied in this activity of the lesson are arranged in pairs with each pair representing a type of information the committee received from various sources. Each small group will analyze one pair of primary source documents.
- Each small group will use two copies of Worksheet 2: Decoding the Documents to analyze each document in the pair.
- Each small group will use the information collected in Worksheet 2 to make an assessment on Worksheet 3: Weighing the Issues that indicates the relative persuasiveness of the arguments made in the documents on the question of the expansion of Federal authority to guarantee voting rights. Groups should answer Question 1 at the bottom of the sheet.
- Sharing by Small Groups: A student from each group will report to the full class on the group's assessment of each pair of evidence, shares their answer to Question 1, and records their assessment on Worksheet 3, projected so that all students can see.
- Assessment by the Whole Class: After listening to the other small groups' assessments of the document pairs, the class will answer Question 2 at the bottom of Worksheet 3. Based on this evidence, should Congress pass legislation to change the balance of state and Federal authority over voting?
Activity 3: Reflection (Time required: 30 minutes)
- Federalism—Balancing the constitutional powers of the states and the Federal Government: Voting rights legislation was enacted by a majority vote in the national legislature. In doing so, they limited the ability of majorities within some states to create state laws which set rules of eligibility for voting. Direct each small group to reflect on this issue by answering following questions:
- Under the Constitution, is it appropriate for a majority in the national Congress to overrule a majority in a state legislature?
- To what extent did states' denial of voting rights justify Congress' expansion of Federal authority over voting?
- How was the concept of federalism used both by those who supported and opposed the Voting Rights Act?
- Evaluating Congress's intent: "After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the 15th Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims." Do you think that this quote from the Supreme Court decision South Carolina v. Katzenbach (1966) is a valid description of Congress' intent when it created the Voting Rights Act? Why or why not? What would be a better description?
- Evaluating Congress's solution: Were the provisions of the Voting Rights Act a proper way to address racial discrimination against nonwhite voters by state or local governments? Use Worksheet 4 to have students read an excerpt from the Act itself and rephrase the language into a short, easy to understand "tweet." (Handout 1 will help students understand the legal language of the Act). Compare Congress's solution to the evidence analyzed in Activity 2—was the Voting Rights Act an appropriate response?
Activity 4: Lesson Extension
Researching the Voting Rights Act Today: Individual students or groups of students should research the current status of the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and the status of lawsuits challenging its continued enforcement. Where are provisions of this law currently being enforced? To what extent does the history of voting since 1965 justify continuing the protections extended in the Voting Rights Act? On what grounds is the Voting Rights Act being challenged?
Legislative Overview of the Voting Rights Act from the Dirksen Congressional Center.
Lesson on the Voting Rights Act from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
JPEGs of document facsimiles and excerpts:
Senator Walter Mondale (MN), "Shocking Brutality in Selma, Alabama," March 8, 1965.
Congressman James Martin (AL), "The Real American Tragedy," March 15, 1965.
Statement by Attorney General Nicholas deB. Katzenbach before the House Judiciary Committee on the proposed Voting Rights Act of 1965, March 18, 1965.
Statement of Hon. Robert Y. Button, Attorney General of the State of Virginia, March 29, 1965.
President Lyndon Johnson's speech to Congress on voting rights: The American Promise, March 15, 1965.
Statement and editorial from the Southern States Industrial Council, April 6, 1965.
Letter from Mrs. E. Jackson in favor of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, March 8, 1965.
Letter from George Neu to the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee against the Voting Rights Act of 1965, March 26, 1965.
Statement of Congressman Claude Pepper, March 24, 1965.
Statement of Congressman L. Mendel Rivers, March 31, 1965.
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