This landmark legislation was signed on Aug. 6, 1965. Here’s how we got there
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, exactly 50 years ago on Thursday, he noted that the day was “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.”
On Aug. 6, 1965, Johnson closed one chapter of America’s history of denying black Americans the right to vote. For nearly a century, the words of the 15th Amendment, which guarantees the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous conditional of servitude” had been rendered useless by subversive tactics like secret ballots, poll taxes, literacy tests and other discriminatory practices that essentially made it impossible for most blacks to cast a ballot. “It was like a stirring march that was written but never played,” TIME wrote of the 15th Amendment in 1965. Between 1890 and 1908, seven southern states had constitutional amendments that established poll taxes and grandfather clauses—which gave leeway to poor whites looking to vote, as long as their ancestors had voted before 1867—and stripped African Americans of their voting rights.