The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the most consequential pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted by Congress. By the 1968 election, areas covered by the Voting Rights Act averaged a 25 percent increase in the number of registered African American voters. The new voters caused a shift in the political base of the South and contributed to a nationwide realignment of the political parties. The new voters also elected increased numbers of African American representatives to Congress.
Americans vigorously exercised their First Amendment right to petition their government when Congress formulated the Voting Rights Act during March and April of 1965. The House Judiciary Committee solicited many points of view, and considered citizens’ petitions, witness testimony, statistical data, and other information throughout their deliberations. The two documents on display here are letters from citizens received by the Committee—one is in favor of voting rights legislation and the other is against.
Several documents from the records of the Committee which reflect multiple perspectives are part of a lesson plan on the Voting Rights Act created by the Center for Legislative Archives. The lesson puts students in the shoes of the members of the Committee as they deliberated the bill, and asks them to evaluate the evidence which led to the Voting Rights Act. The lesson is appropriate for grades 7-12.
The first activity in the lesson orients students to the issue of voter registration in Alabama counties located near the scene of the 1965 voting rights demonstrations in Selma. This activity instructs students to examine and analyze a table of data indicating the numbers of whites and non-whites who were registered to vote in several counties. Students will be able to determine that even though some locales had a majority non-white population, a very small percentage—even zero—had been registered to vote. They will also notice that some places had white voter registration that exceeded 100%. After helping students analyze these numbers, a class discussion can draw out and define why many people believed that there was a problem for non-whites who wanted to vote in certain places and why the federal government proposed a law to address it.
In the second activity, students are put in the shoes of members of the House Judiciary Committee as it considered the proposed Voting Rights Act in March and April of 1965. The lesson includes five pairs of documents that represent different types of evidence that was presented to the committee during their deliberations. Students analyze the documents to determine how and to what extent they, might have been persuaded by each piece of evidence.
Using the information they have gained in the activities, students can reflect upon the balance of constitutional powers over voting rights that exists between the federal and state governments. Did the Voting Rights Act strike the right balance? Pose the guiding question to students: Did the evidence presented to Congress in 1965 support the position that Federal Government action was justified to ensure African Americans’ right to vote?
The education programs at the Center for Legislative Archives aim to make historical records of Congress available to help classroom teachers integrate the history and workings of Congress into American history and government classes. More lesson plans are available at the Center’s web page.