Voting Rights Act of 1965 at 50: A law 'true to our principles'

  • Teaching the illiterate to write so that they have the right to vote, a key component in the Black movement for integration. Virginia, 1960.
  • Mary E. Johnson leaves the voting machine in Lake Providence, La. on Jul. 28, 1962, becoming the first African American to cast a vote in East Carroll parish since 1922. Federal judge Edwin Hunter certified 26 African Americans. Mary Johnson was accompanied by two African American men to the Court House poll where all three voted shortly after the poll opened at 6 a.m.
  • An African American youth is being hustled off to jail as a group tried again to march from the African American registration headquarters to the Leflore County Court House in Greenwood, Miss. on Apr. 3, 1963. Nineteen were arrested and placed in a bus and taken to the county jail. The mass marchers were about eight blocks from there headquarters when the clash with Greenwood Police officers took place.
  • Rev. Fred C. Bennette Jr. (R) instructs Atlanta African Americans how to fill out registration forms which will enable them to vote on Jul. 22, 1963. Similar classes were held in other cities in an effort to increase African American voting power, which is a powerful weapon in his fight against segregation. Seated from left are Austin L. Hayes, Mrs. Dollie M. Shepherd, and Mrs. Hattie Ward.
  • Martha Prescod, Mike Miller, and Robert Parris do voter registration work in the countryside in Mississippi, 1963. 
  • African-Americans vote for the first time. Washington, D.C., 1963.
  • President Lyndon Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders at the White House in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 28, 1964. From left, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, co-founder of the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE) James L. Farmer Jr., President of the Southern Leadership Conference Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Executive Director of National Urban League Whitney Young.
  • Federal and state investigators probe the swampy area near Philadelphia, Miss., where the burned station wagon of the missing civil rights trio was found Jun. 23, 1964. The civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, 24, Andrew Goodman, 21, both white and James Chaney, 21, black, were last seen in Philadelphia, Miss., on Sunday night on Jun. 21, 1964.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. displays pictures of three civil rights workers at a news conference in New York, N.Y. on Dec. 4, 1964. The workers were slain in Mississippi the previous summer. Dr. King commended the FBI for its arrests in Mississippi on Dec. 4 in connection with the slayings. King holds up photos of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. The three civil rights workers disappeared in Mississippi near the town of Philadelphia, northeast of Jackson.
  • A man holds a Confederate flag as demonstrators, including one carrying a sign saying “More than 300,000 Negroes are Denied Vote in Ala.” demonstrate in front of an Indianapolis hotel where then-Alabama Governor George Wallace was staying on Apr. 14, 1964.
  • Chapel singers. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized "Freedom Day", an attempt to get residents registered to vote in Selma, Ala. on Oct. 7, 1964.
  • A man being dragged away by his feet during a CORE demonstration in New York, N.Y., 1964.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. chats with Greenwood African Americans on their front porch during his door-to-door campaign, telling all African Americans to register to vote and to support his Miss. Freedom Democratic party. King arrived in Greenwood on Jul. 21, 1964 for the beginning of a 5-day tour of Mississippi towns.
  • Aaron Henry, leader of the Freedom Democratic Party, argues for seats at the Democratic National Convention for his delegation from Mississippi at a meeting of the credentials committee in Atlantic City, N.J. on Aug. 22, 1964. Henry’s group was trying to win accreditation in place of the regular all-white delegation from Mississippi.
  • Freedom Day. Police arrest demonstrators from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for holding placards urging blacks to register to vote in front of the Selma federal building in Selma, Ala. on Oct. 7, 1964.
  • Annie Lee Cooper, 54, fights with officers including Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark (C) in Selma, Ala. on Jan. 25, 1965. The officers are attempting to handcuff the woman after she allegedly struck the sheriff. The violence erupted in a voter registration line at the court house early this morning.
  • Registrar Carl Golson shakes a finger at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during meeting at the courthouse in Hayneyville, Ala. on Mar. 1, 1965. King inquired about voter registration procedures but Golson told him that if he was not a prospective voter in Lowndes county, “It’s none of your business.” King visited two nearby counties after leading a voter registration drive in Selma.
  • African-Americans, many of them teenagers, during voter registration demonstration in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 5, 1965. More than 400 people were arrested in the latest incident bringing total arrests to about 3,300. 
  • Mrs. Amelia Boynton is aided by two men after she was injured when state police broke up a demonstration march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. Mrs. Boynton, wife of a real estate and insurance man, has been a leader in civil rights efforts.
  • It rained all day but that did not dampen the spirits of blacks determined to register to vote, Feb. 17, 1965. They stood in the rain trying to register in a priority book to take voter registration test in Selma, Ala. Nearly 1,000 black names were now on the book waiting to take the voter registration test. 
  • The body of Jimmie Lee Jackson, 26, is removed from a Selma, Ala., hospital Feb. 26, 1965 after he died of a gunshot wound inflicted during race violence in Marion, Ala., Feb. 18, 1965. The violence broke out during a night demonstration of people against voter registration laws. 
  • Tear gas fumes fill the air as state troopers, ordered by Gov. George Wallace, break up a demonstration march in Selma, Ala., on what is known as Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965. As several hundred marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin their protest march to Montgomery, state troopers violently assaulted the crowd with clubs and whips. A shocked nation watched the police brutality on television and demanded that Washington intervene and protect voter registration rights for blacks.
  • Participants in the Selma march are seen in Selma, Ala., 1965. On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson made no secret about his support for the activists in Selma when he told a joint session of Congress, ‘‘Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.’’
  • Civil Rights demonstrators march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 21, 1965 as they head for the state capital at Montgomery, Ala. The estimated 4500 marchers set out on a five-day, 50 mile journey under the protection of federalized National Guardsmen, U.S. Military Police and other law enforcement agencies.
  • Led by Martin Luther King Jr., a group of civil rights demonstrators march from Selma to Montgomery to fight for black suffrage.
  • During the Freedom march that Martin Luther King led from Selma to Montgomery, organized to show support for a drive to register black voters. Voting registration held in the former gallows. Near Selma, Ala., 1965.
  • Civil rights demonstrators rally in Montgomery during the culmination of the Selma March on March 25, 1965.
  • Demonstrators march at 130th Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem, N.Y. on Mar. 14, 1965 to protest discrimination and Violence in Selma, Ala. More than 10,000 people, half of them white, joined the 42-block circular march in the heart of New York’s African American District.
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a ceremony in the President’s Room near the Senate chambers in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 6, 1965. Surrounding the president from left directly above his right hand, Vice President Hubert Humphrey; Speaker John McCormack; Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-N.Y.; first daughter Luci Johnson; and Sen. Everett Dirkson, R-Ill. Behind Humphrey is House Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma; and behind Celler is Sen. Carl Hayden, D-Ariz. 
  • U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson hands a pen to civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the the signing of the voting rights act as officials look on behind them, Washington, D.C., Aug. 6, 1965.
  • A group of voters lining up outside the polling station in Peachtree, Ala. in 1966, a year after the Voting Rights Act was passed.
  • African Americans register to vote in Greensboro, Ala., 1965.
  • Julian Bond and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cast their ballots to fill Bond’s vacant seat in the US House of Representatives in Atlanta, Ga. on Feb. 23, 1966.
  • African American voters file past a makeshift polling place to cast ballots for seven nominees of the Lowndes Country Freedom Organization (Black Panther Party) in Hayneville, Ala. on May 3, 1966.
  • Civil rights activist James Meredith grimaces in pain as he pulls himself across Highway 51 after being shot in Hernando, Miss. on Jun. 6, 1966. Meredith was leading the March Against Fear to encourage African Americans to exercise their voting rights when he was shot. He completed the march from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., after treatment of his wounds.
  • Chicago comedian Dick Gregory, wearing denim jacket and western attire, reads a newspaper as he waits in the administrator’s office at William F. Bowld Hospital in Memphis on June 7, 1966 for word of James Meredith’s condition. Gregory arrived in Memphis from Chicago with the announced purpose of taking up Meredith’s Memphis-to-Jackson, Miss. march at the point, where Meredith was shot on Monday afternoon.
  • A LeFlore County deputy sheriff shoves a stream of Meredith Marchers as they attempted to cross the LeFlore County Courthouse lawn for a voter registration rally in Greenwood, Miss. on Jun. 17, 1966. The deputy shoves Hoseah Williams, director of voter registration, Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At Williams’ right is Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
  • An unidentified white man who would only tell reporters that he was from Detroit, Mich., gives his two-year-old daughter a piggyback ride as he walks alongside Mississippi marcher James Meredith as he neared Canton, Miss., the destination of his 11-day walk, on Jul. 4, 1967.
  • James Meredith, lower left, whose Mississippi March began in Memphis, Tenn., on Jun. 5 and was interrupted when he was shot the following day, addresses a mass rally of civil rights demonstrators from the Mississippi State Capitol grounds in Jackson on Jun. 26, 1966. The crowd was unofficially estimated at upwards of 20,000 persons. 



Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act, signed in 1965 by then-President Lyndon Johnson and hailed as one of the most successful civil rights laws in the country’s history.

The act, which barred discriminatory voting practices that had been used to deny people—particularly African-Americans—their constitutional right to vote, was no easy feat and came after decades of civil unrest and violence.

RELATED: Voting Rights Act still hotly debated

The civil rights movement culminated on March 7, 1965—now known as “Bloody Sunday”—when about 500 civil rights marchers were beaten back by police officers equipped with tear gas and clubs as they tried to cross the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On March 21, 1965, a five day march to Montgomery, led by Martin Luther King Jr. (under court protection) took place with crowds growing to 25,000—an event that directly impacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In fact, by the end of 1965, approximately 250,000 new black voters became registered.

“Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color,” Johnson said during remarks at the act’s signing. “This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny.”

RELATED: How events in Selma 50 years ago changed America forever

While America has come a long way since the act became law, voting rights for minorities are still under attack, argue many. In fact, on Thursday’s anniversary, President Obama plans to call for renewal of the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court in 2013 took away one of the strongest powers the federal government had to block discriminatory voting laws.

While Democrats say the ruling’s impact has resulted in minorities being discouraged from voting, Republicans argue it curbs voter fraud.

Here’s a photographic, historical look back at the voting rights movement.

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