The Voting Rights Act and “Eyes on the Prize”

28 Jun
John Lewis in "Eyes on the Prize"

John Lewis in “Eyes on the Prize”

This week the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act by ruling that Section 4 was no longer valid. Section 4 was originally created to eliminate the use of an arbitrary “test or device” that often took the form of a literacy test or a character reference required in order to register to vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Johnson after a long struggle on the part of civil rights activists to address this issue. President Johnson had previous signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He signed the second 1965 act because he felt the previous one did not resolve all voting rights problems in the Southern States.

Many interviewees in Eyes on the Prize were deeply involved in the struggle to gain voting rights for African Americans. Prior to the act registering to vote was a complicated, byzantine process involving literacy tests or having someone vouch for your character. In the end whether a person was able to register to vote or not was dependent on the whims and decisions of the individuals who were registering people in that area. The Voting Rights Act created federal oversight of elections administration across the country to prevent this unfair and arbitrary process.

Amelia Boynton Robinson and her husband became involved in helping people to register to vote in Selma, Alabama. In her interview she describes the hurdles African Americans had to overcome to register to vote,

During the time before the civil rights movement started, which was about thirty years, between twenty-five and thirty years, before the whole country became interested and registration and voting for the more downtrodden people, my husband and I decided that we were going to help people to register. At that time, they had two pages to fill out. And these two pages were questions that were pretty hard for the average person to fill out. And it was terribly hard for those who were illiterate. We had more illiteracy in this county than they had in most counties throughout the state, or in any other state, but we would teach them how to fill these blanks out. We could not do it by coming in the open and doing it, so we started with the people with whom we worked who were the rural people. My husband as a county agent, and I as a home demonstration agent would have meetings in the rural churches, and even in the homes…At that time, my husband was a registered voter and a voucher. Each person that came down to register had to have a voucher with him.

My husband was very, one of the very few people who was given the opportunity to bring people down there, and as he brought them down…that is he was supposed to tell that he knew these people. He knew where they lived, he knew their ages, or around their ages. He knew that they were, during their lifetime, they were people who had contributed, whatever they could to the, for the benefit of the city, or the county. And if he could tell all of that, saying that they were good Negroes, as it was said, that they would consider letting them become a registered voter. These people were known as vouchers…When he began to bring three and four people at a time, then the registrar became very much upset about [sic] and said, “You’re bringing too many people down here to register, why is it you’re bringing these people down here? We have been registering and voting for them all the time, now, you are doing the wrong thing by bringing these large numbers of black people to register and vote.” So he said, “They would like to be citizens.”

Interview with Amelia Boynton Robinson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 6, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Representative John Lewis, who was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was heavily involved in voting rights efforts. In his interview he describes being in Selma on what became known as “Freedom Day” in 1963,

We had made a commitment. We felt we had an obligation, and really a mandate to go to Selma where only about 2.1 percent of the black people of voting age were registered to vote. And on this particular day, hundreds of blacks lined up and stood at the county courthouse for most of the day and at the end of the day only about five people had made it in to take the so-called literacy tests. I can never forget that day. We met hostile law enforcement officials, Sheriff Clark and others stood there, and later some of us were arrested. But mostly elderly black men and women stood there all day in line and as several people from the outside observed–James Baldwin,  Professor Howard Zinn, a historian, and others–but it was the turning point for the right to vote.

I can never forget Selma. Selma…in my estimation one of the finest hours in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. The March on Washington we left the front line, we left the battlefield and went to Washington. We went to the seat of the national government to, to petition. But in Selma we had a response from the American people. People came there–the days after Bloody Sunday there was demonstration, nonviolent protest in more than 80 major cities in America. People didn’t like what they saw happening there. There was a sense that we had to do something, that we had to do it now. We literally, in my estimation, wrote the Voting Rights Act with our blood and with our feet, on the streets of Selma, Alabama and the Highway 80 between Selma and Montgomery. See, we had been told by President Johnson a few months earlier, that it was impossible, it would just be impossible to get another Civil Rights Act, we had just signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Dr. King said, “We will write it.” And he literally brought the moral forces of to Selma and he used it to educate the American community and get a President and a Congress to say yes when they probably had the desire to say no.

Interview with John Lewis, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 5, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

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