Emerging at the conclusion of the so-called classical era of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights and Immigration & Nationality Acts of 1965 extended significant rights and protections to racial minorities in the United States. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 enforces the rights of suffrage guaranteed in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and expressly prohibits racial discrimination with regard to voting. The Immigration and Nationality Acts of 1965 ended the national-based quotas system enacted in the 1920s with regard to immigration and created a skills- and family-based preference system. The two acts addressed specific racial concerns and issues in the United States and are considered some of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation. They are reflective of the American system of democracy and both acts have certainly faced critical challenges. Overall, the Voting Rights and Immigration & Nationality Acts of 1965 have been successful in their goal of extending the benefits of American democracy to minorities because they respectively have guaranteed the protection of suffrage rights and ceased racist immigration policy which blocked prospective immigrants on the grounds of national origin.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was prompted by the increasing violence directed toward peaceful civil rights protesters in the South who, after successful pushes to desegregate the social sphere, agitated to remove barriers to voting registration for people of color (Menard 84). Specifically, southern states had enacted various voting restrictions, including poll taxes, literacy and moral character tests, and property requirements, following the conclusion of the Civil War which targeted black potential voters. Simultaneously, states enacted grandfather clauses which exempted white potential voters from these restrictions (Menard 83; Purdy, web). The effects of voter restriction in the South included predominantly white juries (who were pulled from pools of registered voters) even in areas with black majorities and all-white judicial systems in which police and vigilante violence against black citizens were condoned or even applauded (Menard 85). Hence, one sees the ways in which ubiquitous state-sponsored violence against African Americans (lynching at the hands of those in public office, for example) are tolerated by the white public in places like Alabama and Mississippi. These measures, enacted during the Jim Crow Era, were intended to keep black citizens in a perpetual state of oppression – one cannot make institutional change in a democratic system if one cannot vote (Purdy, web).
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 contains both general and special provisions in which the general provisions are applicable nationwide and the special provisions are only pertinent to specific states and regions. Both provisions address the protection of suffrage for racial and linguistic minorities (“Voting Rights Act of 1965”). Section 2 of the act expressly prohibits the implementation of a “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting…in a manner which results in the denial or abridgement of the right to vote on account of race, color, or language” (“Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Section 2). However, even the Supreme Court has stated that this language is merely a reiteration of that in the Fifteenth Amendment and only addresses explicitly race-based discrimination (Mobile v. Bolden, 1980). In other words, the language of the Voting Rights Act is potentially no more legally prohibitive than the Fifteenth Amendment which had not stopped the implementation of suffrage-denying Jim Crow legal measures in the early twentieth century. Section 2 was amended in 1982 to more fully describe an environment in which racial discrimination with regard to voting had taken place (“Senate Report,” 1982).
The general provision prohibits two types of discrimination: vote denial, in which a potential voter is denied the opportunity to cast a vote or their vote is not taken into account; and vote dilution, in which the strength or effectiveness of someone’s vote is diminished (“Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Section 2). The former specifically addresses the aforementioned legally-enacted barriers to voter registration and the latter is intended to prevent gerrymandering within the process of redistricting. Gerrymandering dilutes the strength of minority votes by manipulating district boundaries and establishing political advantages for certain groups of people (Simpson, web). With regard to African American voters, gerrymandering typically breaks up minority populations blocs and prevents the election of representatives who many disrupt the status quo.
The special provisions include a coverage formula, a preclearance requirement, the presence of federal examiners, bailout, and bilingual election requirements. These special provisions are extended to specific states and regions which have been determined by the coverage formula. These states and regions are subject to special provisions if they had implemented a “test or device” to restrict voting and if half of the eligible citizens in a district were registered to vote prior to 1965 (“The Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Section 4b). These regions are required to obtain federal approval, or preclearance, before amending their existing election laws (“The Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Section 5). Section 6 allows for the appointment of federal examiners to oversee how voter registration functions within certain districts and under Section 4a, districts may seek exemption from special coverage through the bailout process in which the district obtains a declaratory judgment from a panel of three judges from the District Court of Washington, D.C. (“The Voting Rights Act of 1965”). The final special provision states that certain districts must provide voter material and documents in multiple languages in an effort to expedite the registration and voting process (“The Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Sections 4f4 and 203c). These special provisions are all intended to preempt voting restrictions in places which had, traditionally, embraced barriers to voting.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 amended the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 while still upholding several of the provisions introduced in the Immigration Act of 1924. The amendments aimed at dismantling the quota system based on national origin and implemented a preference system composed of seven categories in which relatives of American citizens and skilled professionals are given priority (“The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965”). Immigrants joining their families are not subject to numerical restrictions, immigrants must have labor certification, and those seeking refuge are given another avenue by which they may enter the United States. Prior to 1965, certain geographic regions (such as northern Europe) were given preference based on presumed ethnic superiority within the quota system while others were restricted (southern Europe, Asia, Africa, etc.) (Ludden, web).
This act was based in egalitarianism and intended as a diplomatic overture to international leaders who opposed American immigration policies (Ludden, web). While the sponsors of the bill claimed it would not affect the racial distribution of the nation nor the incoming immigrants, it absolutely did. While the bill was framed as a tool to reunite families, it also equalized the opportunity to immigrate to the United States. Potential immigrants took advantage of this avenue with gusto and the demographic transformation within the United States has been immense in the last fifty years (Ludden, web).
Initially, these two acts were incredibly successful at combating racist voting laws and immigration policies. However, the American body of law is a living thing which requires updating in the form of amendments. Today, one sees the implementation of nebulous voter identification laws which disproportionately affect certain populations. Additionally, the queue of potential immigrants is numbered in the millions, many among them waiting to be reunited with family members. As Justice Roberts said in response to the Shelby County v. Holder case, “History did not end in 1965” (Purdy, web). The Voting Rights and Immigration & Nationality Acts of 1965 were groundbreaking and completely reflective of the socio-political atmosphere of their time. However, times have changed and these pieces of legislation require amendments which reflect those changes in order to remain relevant.
- Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, §§ 12-1101-1351 (1965). Print.
- Menard, Louis. “The Color of Law: Voting Rights and the Sout.” New Yorker 8 July 2013: 80-89. Print.
- Ludden, Jennifer. “1965 Immigration Law Changed Face of America.” NPR. NPR, 9 May 2006. Web. 08 Oct. 2016.
- Purdy, Jedidiah. “A Voting Rights Victory in North Carolina.” New Yorker 2 Aug. 2016: n. pag. The New Yorker. 2 Aug. 2016. Web. 8 Oct. 2016.
- Simpson, J. A., Weiner, E. S. C. “Gerrymander”, Oxford English Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press. Web. Voting Rights Act of 1965, §§ 10101-10701 (1965). Print.