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The Voting Rights Act's 40th Anniversary

Forty years ago this week (August 6, 1965) the United States Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law, sweeping legislation securing equal voting rights for African-Americans. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in the nation's history. VOA's Chris Simkins takes a look at the push to grant blacks voting rights and the impact of the legislation four decades later.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. African-Americans, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations calling for an end to racial discrimination

The images of injustice and continued violence began to swing American opinion towards supporting legislation to protect the civil rights of blacks. In 1964 lawmakers passed, and President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Civil Rights Act.

The law granted African-Americans the same freedoms as whites, saying blacks could no longer be excluded from restaurants, hotels or other public facilities on the grounds of race, color, religion or national origin.

In a speech President Johnson said, "This Civil Rights Act is a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and in our states and in our homes and in our hearts to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country."

One key demand was still unmet: the right to vote. African-Americans, especially throughout the southern United States, clashed with white police officers that forcibly prevented them from registering to vote.

One black demonstrator trying to register to vote said, "And we will register to vote because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it and you can turn your back on me but you cannot turn your back on the idea of justice."

Historian Nick Kotz has written about President Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King's push to win the support of southern conservative lawmakers who tried to block the voting rights legislation.

Commenting on the success of the struggle, Kotz says, "The high point of success in this struggle came after there had been a bloody confrontation in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. At that point the country said, and you could read it in public opinion polls, they had had enough of this injustice of keeping people of color from voting had to stop. At that point President Johnson provided the national leadership to get the job done in Congress."

The 1965 Voting Rights Act banned racial discrimination in voting. On August 6th 1965, President Johnson signed the measure into law. Passage of the Voting Rights Act represented a great victory for African Americans who had fought so long.

Political Analyst Thomas Mann with The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. says the Voting Rights Act was important in both a legal and political sense.

"Legally, it finally overcame the many barriers to political participation by African-Americans whose rights had been denied in the decades after the civil war. Since then we have seen an extraordinary increase in the number of black elected officials at all levels of government and in the voting participation of black citizens."

Four decades after passage of the Voting Rights Act, 37-year-old Eugene Grant is the mayor of Seat Pleasant, Maryland outside Washington, D.C. Mayor Grant is one of more than a dozen black mayors elected in the surrounding area. Crediting the Voting Rights Act for opening opportunities for blacks, he says, "Five years right after the Voting Rights Act was passed more African-Americans participated in the political process and more African-Americans were able to vote. Here in Seat Pleasant, Maryland in 1970 the first African American male was elected to the high office of mayor."

Certain provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act are set to expire in 2007.

Mayor Grant says he will join other civil rights leaders in a nationwide fight for the government to renew all parts of the Act in full to ensure strict enforcement of the legislation. Mayor Grant says people should never forget the impact this law has had on black voter participation.