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The Voting Rights Act, Today

How do we celebrate the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when significant threats to equal voting rights still exist in the United States?

August 6th marks the anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A day we should celebrate, right?

On the one hand, yes, we certainly should celebrate this history. The Voting Rights Act of 1965—a significant victory of the civil rights movement—removed barriers that had long prevented millions of African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment. The Act affirmed that right, banned racial discrimination in voting practices (such as poll taxes and literacy tests) and included special provisions for states and localities with a history of voter discrimination (such as additional federal oversight of voting laws and practices).

This Act of ’65 was a victory, and it deserves to be remembered this way. Its passage was the direct legacy of civil rights activists who fought a nonviolent battle to win and secure voting rights for African Americans in the South. They organized and marched—in the face of intimidation, violence, arrest and even murder—for equal and safe access to the ballot.  

And in classrooms, this celebration can teach students about the power of the vote—and the power of their own voices. To introduce these themes, you can use Teaching Tolerance’s 40-minute documentary film, Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot, and its accompanying viewer’s guide and web package. (It’s free to educators.) The film tells the story of a courageous group of Alabama students and teachers who participated in registration initiatives and voting rights marches, bringing their cause to the steps of the Alabama State Capitol and the rest of the nation.

But the Act of ‘65 also deserves much more than our nostalgia and commemoration. Significant barriers and threats to equal voting rights still exist in the United States. Take, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted a key provision of the Act. (Shelby County is in Alabama, directly north of the 54-mile-long Selma-to-Montgomery March route.) The decision states that additional federal oversights—previously deemed necessary in states with histories of discriminatory voting practices—were no longer needed, an assertion disputed by many citizens of those localities and also by some members of the Court. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “Throwing out [federal oversight] when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

In the years since Shelby, voter suppression persists in several forms: racial gerrymandering, photo ID laws, lack of access to registration and felon disenfranchisement, to name just a few. Our recent interview with scholar and author Carol Anderson details how these tactics were used historically and are used today to deny black people the right to vote. The accompanying toolkit can help you teach students that the history of voting rights isn't linear, but instead, a timeline of victories and setbacks.

The resources in the viewer’s guide for Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot can also help you empower your students to learn about both historical and contemporary threats to voting rights and to take action in their own communities. 

We hope you’ll teach about the significance of this civil rights victory—but don’t forget to tell the whole, complicated story.