For Educators: Voting Rights Act of 1965

Activity 3: Protecting Our Right to Vote

Introduction

In 1970, Congress extended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for five years. Section 5 focused on the use of discriminatory tests and other devices like the poll tax designed to exclude certain individuals from the voting process. These extensions required that jurisdictions with a history of illegal discrimination obtain permission from either the Justice Department or a panel of federal district court judges before changing any voting practices.

In 1975, Congress extended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for seven more years. The definition of "test or device" was expanded to include the practice of providing election information, including ballots, only in English in states or political subdivisions where members of a single language minority constituted more than five percent of the citizens of voting age. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan from Texas proposed to expand the "test or device" term to include ballots printed only in English in areas with a high concentration of Spanish-speaking Americans. This became a major issue during the debates for the extension of the act.

Class Time Needed: two class sessions

Documents Needed:

Implementation

Tell the students that they are going to analyze Congressional documents from 1975 to gather information about the debates and issues raised by members of Congress about the impact of providing election information and ballots in other languages like Spanish and securing the extension of the act.

Divide the class into small groups. Distribute to each group copies of the documents, 1975 CBC memo to Caucus Members from Congressman Charles B. Rangel and the handwritten letter from CBC member Parren Mitchell. Using the written document analysis guide sheet, allow the students to review the documents.

Discussion Questions:
Ask the students to share what information can be gathered from the documents. See sample questions below:

Q: Who were members of the CBC in 1975?

A: Charles Rangel, Yvonne Burke, Walter Fauntroy, Andrew Young, Shirley Chisholm, William Clay, Cardiss Collins, John Conyers, Ronald Dellums, Charles Diggs, Harold Ford, Sr., Augustus Hawkins, Barbara Jordan, Ralph Metcalfe, Parren Mitchell, Robert N.C. Nix, and Louis Stokes

Q: What states did they represent?

A: New York - Rangel and Chisholm; California - Burke, Dellums, Hawkins; District of Columbia - Fauntroy; Georgia - Young; Missouri - Clay; Michigan - Collins, Conyers, and Diggs; Tennessee - Ford; Texas - Jordan; Illinois - Metcalfe; Maryland - Mitchell; Pennsylvania - Nix; Ohio - Stokes

Q: What role did Charles Rangel play in the CBC in 1975?

A: Chair

Q: What was the status of the act?

A: It needed to be reauthorized

Q: What was the major issue for extending the act?

A: Ballots and election materials written for Spanish speaking citizens

Q: As a U.S. House Representative from Texas, why do you think this issue was very important to Congresswoman Barbara Jordan?

A: Texas had one of the biggest Spanish-speaking populations at the time

Writing Activity

Tell the students that their group will play the role of news reporters. Each group is to prepare a news announcement based on the information provided in the documents as well as Barbara Jordan's February 19, 1975 speech to extend the Act with the inclusion of addressing the needs of Spanish-speaking citizens as recorded in the Congressional Record.

Current Events/Debate Activity: The Relevance of the Voting Rights Act Today

Engage your students in a debate about the relevance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to individual lives and American citizens' right to practice civic responsibility. Based on current events, have the students prepare a persuasive argument in response to one of the following statements:

As a young American in today's society, this forty-year-old law no longer impacts our lives.
Although the worst situations addressed by the Voting Rights Act (poll tax, registration tests, violence, etc.) are now rare or non-existent, should organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus continue to remain vigilant about the enforcement and reauthorization of this law?
Other Voting Rights Act of 1965 Web Resources to Support Debate Research

For a recent event related to the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, listen to a National Public Radio report, July 14, 2008 on voting fraud activity in Alabama.

For additional primary documents see the National Archives web site for the following:

Letter from Mrs. E. Jackson in favor of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She was reacting to scenes of police brutality during a voting rights march that many Americans witnessed on television news programs.
Letter from George Neu opposed to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As a concerned citizen, George Neu writes to the House Judiciary Committee to express his belief that the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.
Statement of Congressman John Conyers, Jr. on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the Judiciary Committee, April 1, 1965.

Teacher Tip

Timeline Exhibit Activity

A timeline is a calendar of events that have occurred in a day, a month or several years. Illustrations or images are often used to give a visual chronology of key events highlighted on the timeline. Using the Avoice Voting Rights Act Timeline, arrange the students in teams and assign each team a period of events on the timeline. Tell them to use images and drawings to create a collage interpretation of their assigned period. In the classroom or school hallway, create a timeline exhibit about the history of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Consider including the students written assignments and oral interviews.

Community Connections
Have the students arrange an interview with their U.S. Representative or U.S. Senator to speak about the importance of citizenship and voting.
Research how one can register to vote in their town or city.
Interview family and community members about their voting experiences and the importance of this civic right to them.
Involve the students in an online search to gather population demographics of the number of voters in the last election and the number of voters among the current population. A web site for this information is http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/voting.html.

additional information and links.