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What was the Voting Rights Act of 1965?

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The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the two most important laws that were enacted to protect the civil rights of African Americans.  The other was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The Voting Rights Act, as its name implies, was meant to ensure that African Americans’ right to vote was protected.

African Americans had had the legal right to vote since the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870.  However, many actions were taken in the South to deny blacks the actual ability to vote.  For example, states instituted “literacy tests” on the pretext that people should be able to read in order to vote.  Since many African Americans were uneducated at that time, and since white test administrators could selectively decide whom to pass and whom to fail, these sorts of laws ended up making it almost impossible for African Americans to vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was meant to rectify this situation.  It had two main parts.  First, it said that no voting requirements could be enacted to prevent people from voting on the basis of race.  Second, it said that states and counties with a history of suppressing non-white voting (mainly states in the South) had to get federal approval of any change to their voting procedures.  This was meant to prevent them from enacting procedures that seemed to have nothing to do with race but which would work to disenfranchise minorities.

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