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Constitution Day 2015

2015 Constitution Day: Voting Rights of 1965 Flyer 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. To commemorate that anniversary and celebrate the historic importance of the Act and its impact on American life, we invite you to join HEC-TV and the Missouri Bar for Constitution Day 2015: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Its Current Implications.

Topics will include details on the provisions of the Act itself and the political, cultural, and legal forces that caused its passage. We’ll explore the Constitutional concepts that were at issue, and we’ll gauge the importance of the Act as we discuss its impact on American life at the time of its passage and its continuing impact through court decisions and legislative renewals as well as the voting rights issues and legislation of today.

Join us from the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse in St. Louis to interact with our panel of judges, constitutional scholars, lawyers and historians for a vibrant and insightful discussion as we explore The Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Thursday, September 17, 2015 Times: 10 – 11 a.m. and 1 – 2 p.m.
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2015 Study Guide

Click here to download the Word document of the 2015 Study Guide

The Missouri Bar 2015 Constitution Day Program

The 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Its Current Implications

A Joint Project of the Missouri Bar and HEC-TV Live

September 17, 2015

 

STUDY GUIDE

(Prepared by Millie Aulbur, Director of Citizenship Education, The Missouri Bar)

 

INTRODUCTION

The Missouri Bar and HEC-TV, in cooperation with the Public Education and Community Outreach program at the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse in St. Louis, are proud to host The Missouri Bar Constitution Day Program.  This is the eighth consecutive year that The Missouri Bar and HEC-TV have partnered for this program.  The 2011 Constitution Day Program on the presidency won a Telly Award for outstanding programming and several of the other programs have been nominated for the award.

The program this year is entitled The 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Its Current Implications.   Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) on August 4, 1965, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law just two days later on August 6.   Historians generally agree that the passage of this legislation, along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, finally brought to fruition the promises embodied in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which were passed soon after the end of the Civil War.  2015 is also the 145th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which stated that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

We are pleased to announce that once again the program will be broadcast from the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse in St. Louis. The program will air twice:  10:00-11:00 a.m. and 1:00-2:00 p.m. Central Standard Time.  Constitution Day participants will have the opportunity to listen to a panel of experts on these topics and to submit their own questions and comments to the panel.  The panel members are:

  • Stephen Davis, Attorney with Arent Fox LLP and adjunct professor of law at SLU
  • Jason Kander, Missouri Secretary of State
  • Denise Lieberman Senior Attorney, Voter Protection Program/Advancement Project
  • Judge Catherine Perrry, United States Chief Judge, Eastern District of Missouri.
  • Mark Updegrove, Executive Director, the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas.

 

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  1. Describe the history of voting rights in the United States.
  2. Describe the essential components of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  3. Explain how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 15th Amendment are related.
  4. Explain the injustices the Voting Rights of 1965 sought to correct.
  5. Discuss current issues relevant to voting.

 

Purpose of the Study Guide

This study guide is intended as a resource for classroom teachers to prepare students for the Constitution Day broadcasts and to provide follow-up activities.  The study guide has background materials, classroom activities, enrichment suggestions and links to outstanding Internet resources.

 

The Making of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

We recommend several excellent websites for learning about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, exploring the philosophical and historical foundations, and for information about the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the constitutional ratification process:

 

The 50th Anniversary of the Voting rights Act of 1965 and Its Current Implications

Background

Who is eligible to vote or how elections should take place is not mentioned in the original United States Constitution.  Article VI of the Constitution does state that no one should ever have to take a religious test as a qualification to hold office or hold public trust.  Some historians have opined that this could be broadly interpreted to mean that no one should have to take a religious test in order to be able to vote.   Since the Constitution was largely silent on the matter, suffrage (voting) and elections were governed by state laws.

Until after the Civil War, voting was mostly a privilege only for white men and in some states, very early in our history, only white men who owned property.  By the mid-1800s, the ownership of property was no longer required in any of the states. However, there were only a few rare instances where women and free African-Americans were allowed to vote.

The first constitutional provision to deal with voting was the 15th Amendment, the last of the three amendments generally called the Civil War Amendments.  The 15th Amendment, which was ratified in 1870, prohibited both the federal and state governments from denying a man the right to vote because of race or because he had been a slave.   Immediately following the Civil War and during the Reconstruction Era, when there were still federal troops in the former Confederate states, a large number of African-American men voted and some were even elected to political offices, including Congress.  However, when the federal soldiers left, things changed.

Efforts by African-American men to vote and hold office were met by threats of violence and in many instances, actual physical harm.  In addition to physical intimidation, some states passed laws, which on their face were not racist, but were designed to exclude African-American men from voting.  These laws required literacy tests and poll taxes.    White men were grandfathered in and did not have to take either the literacy tests or pay the poll taxes.  The poll taxes were a financial burden for most African-American men.  The literacy tests were very difficult and a person taking the test had to get almost all of the questions right.  (For a good description of literacy tests, listen to President Lyndon Johnson’s speech on March 15, 1965, where he talks to Congress about the Voting Rights Act.  Go to http://digital.lbjlibrary.org/record/VID-MP506

 

Events Leading to the Passage of The Voting Act of 1965

It was not until the mid-twentieth century that these injustices became a national focus.  The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 tried to remedy the problems of racial discrimination in voting, but there was little or no enforcement of these laws.  Realizing that securing the right to vote was essential to full citizenship, the main focus of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was about changing how African-Americans were being excluded from voting

1964 was deemed Freedom Summer because Civil Rights activists from throughout the country came to the South to push for voting rights for African-Americans, especially in Mississippi and Alabama.  They held peaceful demonstrations demanding that state and local officials end racial discrimination aimed at keeping African-Americans from voting.  The demonstrators’ were often confronted, and often violently, by state and local law enforcement officials.  Television news coverage of these events finally caught the public’s attention about how pervasive and heinous the problem was. Americans were watching this violent drama unfold in their living rooms on their television sets and began speaking out about the problems.

Freedom Summer came on the heels of the ratification by the states of the 24th Amendment of the United States Constitution (January 23, 1964).  This amendment prohibits both Congress and the states from conditioning the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a poll tax or other types of taxes.   At that time, five states—Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia—still had poll taxes and they continued to charge the poll taxes for state elections.   (It was not until 1966 that these states stopped charging the poll tax.  In that year, the Supreme Court of the United States, in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663, declared that poll taxes, for any election, were unconstitutional because they violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.)

Later in 1964 and in the middle of Freedom Summer, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Title I of this law prohibited racism in federal elections, but did not apply to state and local elections.   However, despite these legal changes and the peaceful demonstrations, African-Americans’ attempts to register to vote continued to be met with strong, violent resistance.   States that were requiring literacy tests and poll taxes continued to do so.

In light of these events, President Johnson and Civil Rights leaders began pushing for legislation specifically outlawing literacy tests and other kinds of racist practices by local and state election officials.  They also wanted the legislation to provide for specific ways that the federal government could enforce this law and the 15th and 24th Amendments.

What finally brought the crisis to a head and what finally had the American people clamoring for change, too, was what happened in February, 1965, when there was to be a  peaceful march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol at Montgomery to protest voter discrimination.  The reaction from law enforcement officers to the demonstration was particularly violent and the bloody scenes were on the nightly news.  An African-American clergyman who was taking part in the demonstration was killed by the police.

On March 15, 1965, President Johnson delivered a very passionate speech in front of Congress and to the nation at which time he urged for a national legislative solution to voter discrimination. Pointedly, Johnson ended his speech with the historic words of the national Civil Rights anthem, “We shall overcome.”  Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 4 and President Johnson signed it into law on August 6.  (http://digital.lbjlibrary.org/record/VID-MP506)

 

What Does the Voting Rights Act Say?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 specifically prohibited states or local governments from imposing any kind of measure that would “deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”   What made the VRA a more powerful law than previous laws and amendments were the many provisions that allowed the federal government to enforce the laws.   Several states were put under strict federal supervision of their voting and election laws.  (Note:  The VRA also included Native Americans as well as African-Americans.)

Within months of the passage of the act and the enforcement of it by the federal government, the number of African-Americans who became registered voters soared in those states where discrimination had been particularly prevalent.  Within two years with the help of many volunteers, African-American voter registration throughout the South increased to more than 50 percent of the voting-age population. Mississippi’s African-American voters in particular benefited from this legislation, moving from the lowest percentage of eligible voters to the highest. As of 2014, Mississippi had more elected African-American officials than any other state.

In a 2014 column, George Will stated, “The VRA is the noblest legislation in American history, more transformative than the 1862 Homestead Act, the 1862 Morrill Act (land-grant colleges), or the 1944 GI Bill of Rights.”

 

Other Voting Rights Landmarks

African-Americans have not been the only group who has had to fight for the right to vote.  Other landmark suffrage events in  our nation’s history are:

  • 1920:  Women win the right vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment.  The first president whose mother could vote for him was Franklin Roosevelt.
  • 1924:  The Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship, and, thus voting rights to Native Americans.
  • 1961:  Residents of Washington, D.C. gain the right to vote for the President and Vice-President with the 23rd Amendment.
  • 1971:  The 26th Amendment establishes age 18 as the voting age.   Supporters of this amendment argued that soldiers who were old enough to fight for their country in Vietnam should be granted the vote
  • 1975:  Congress extends the protections of the VRA to members of “language minorities,” including voters who speak Spanish, Native American languages, Alaskan Native languages, and Asian languages. Jurisdictions with significant language minority populations are to provide non-English ballots and oral voting instructions.
  • 1986:  Military personnel and other citizens living overseas are permitted to vote.

 

Current Voting Issues

  • In a 2013 case, Shelby County v. Holder,the United States Supreme Court struck down the constitutionality of two provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which dealt with federal supervision of some of the states.  In a 5-4 decision, the majority ruled that the supervision was based on statistics compiled in 1972 and that Congress could authorize supervision only if new data was compiled.  The dissenting opinions expressed deep concern about ending federal supervision, given the egregious nature of the discrimination in the past.  The Court left open the possibility of reversing itself if new statistics are compiled.
  • Voter Identification is an issue in many states.  The United States Supreme Court has held that any kind of identification requirement cannot “unduly burden” the voter.  In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 553 U.S. 181 (2008), in a case of an Indiana law requiring voters to provide photo IDs, the Court held that this did not violate the Constitution.  In 2015, the Court allowed a lower court’s decision upholding Wisconsin’s similar voter identification law.  However, In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a joint-appeal from Arizona and Kansas that would have allowed the states to require applicants to show proof of citizenship while registering to vote.

Teaching about the Voting Rights Act of 1965

  1. President Lyndon Johnson is linked inextricably with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  His presidential library in Austin has incredible resources and the following three resources are particularly outstanding (www.lbjlibrary.org):
  • http://digital.lbjlibrary.org/record/VID-MP506 This speech given by President Johnson on March 15, 1965, to Congress about the need for the Voting Rights Act is a must-see.  President Johnson gave this speech the after the historic march to Selma where African-Americans were protesting the violence they had met in trying to register to vote.
    • digital.lbjlibrary.org/record/VID-MP538. This is a statement LBJ made to the press after meeting with George Wallace.  The event is post passage of the Civil Rights Act.  The meeting occurred just a week after the Selma incident.  It provides good insight into LBJ’s state of mind concerning civil rights and federal enforcement of them.
    • digital.lbjlibrary.org/record/VID-MP2265-66.  This is a video of LBJ’s commencement address to Howard University in May of 1965 where he talks about the upcoming efforts to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

 

  1. For excellent background materials, including primary documents, and for lesson plans, there are many resources:

 

For further study and discussion

  1. What were literacy tests? How were they used?  What is meant by the statement that most white men were “grandfathered” in?   For background information and sample tests go to:
  2. The best website and with lesson plan and literacy test with answers is: pbs.org/newshour/extra/lessons_plans/constitution-day-the-1965-alabama-literacy-test/
  3. pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/voting_literacy.html
  4. com/could-you-pass-the-literacy-test-african-american-voters-had-to-take/
  5. mtv.com/news/2002945/selma-literacy-tests-movie-mlk/
  6. What were poll taxes and how were they used to keep African-Americans from voting?
  7. The Voting Rights Act, in its original form and in subsequent revisions, addressed “voter dilution” or gerrymandering. Research how gerrymandering has led to racist voter practices.  (https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/gerrymander)
  8. The portion of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 had to do with how some states had to get “pre-clearance” from the federal government before making changes to voting or election laws or rules. Research what “pre-clearance” means and how it has stopped discriminatory voting practices.  (http://www.crf-usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/)
  9. Research the history of the voting abuses suffered by Native Americans.
  10. Felons are a group with varied voting rights. In Missouri, a convicted felon cannot vote while incarcerated, on parole or probation.  However, after all of these have been served, a felon may register to vote and is eligible to vote. (See Revised Statutes of Missouri 115.133)  How do you feel about this?  What would be the policy reasons for this?
  11. There has been some discussion in the last several years about extending the right to vote to non-citizens. What do you think about that?  Should voting be a privilege only for American citizens?

 

 

Alignment with Missouri’s social studies standards

 

Constitution Day Objectives

 

Show Me Knowledge/Content

 

Performance Process Course Level Expectations/Depth of Knowledge
Describe the history of voting rights in the United States.

 

Social Studies 1 Principles expressed in the documents shaping democracy in the U.S.

 

1.2 Conduct research to answer questions and evaluate information and ideas. 3a. Knowledge of continuity and change in history

A. Explain the importance of the following principles of government:

1.  Limited government

2.  Majority rule and minority rights

3.  Constitution and Civil rights

4.  Checks and balances

5.  merits of the above principles

DOK 2

Standards SS2 1.10

Describe the essential components of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

 

Social Studies 1 Principles expressed in the documents shaping democracy in the U.S.

 

1.2 Conduct research to answer questions and evaluate information and ideas. I. Analyze the evolution of American democracy, its ideas, institutions and political processes, including:

1. Constitution and amendments

2. struggle for civil rights

3. expanding role of government

DOK 3

Standards SS3 1.6, 1.9

Explain how the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fifteenth Amendment are related.

 

Social Studies 3 Principles and processes of governance systems.

 

1.2 Conduct research to answer questions and evaluate information and ideas. K.  Explain the importance of the following principles of government since Reconstruction

1. majority rule and minority rights

2. Constitution and Civil Rights

3. checks and balances

DOK 2

Standards  SS3 1.10

Explain the injustices the Voting Rights of 1965 sought to correct.

 

Social Studies 3 Principles and processes of governance systems.

.

 

1.2 Conduct research to answer questions and evaluate information and ideas. K.  Explain the importance of the following principles of government since Reconstruction

1. majority rule and minority rights

2. Constitution and Civil Rights

3. checks and balances

DOK 2

Standards  SS3 1.10

Discuss current issues relevant to voting.

 

Social Studies 3 Principles and processes of governance systems.

 

 

3.6 Examine problems and proposed solutions from multiple perspectives. I. Analyze the evolution of American democracy, its ideas, institutions and political processes, including:

1. Constitution and amendments

2. struggle for civil rights

3. expanding role of government

DOK 3

Standards SS3 1.6, 1.9

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