Sumter County, Alabama and the Origins of the Voting Rights Act
Brian K. Landsberg
University of the Pacific - McGeorge School of Law
Alabama Law Review, Vol. 54, No. 3, Spring 2003
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 employs a wide menu of innovative techniques to secure the right to vote free from racial discrimination. The Act radically changed the enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment, by relying less on the local federal courts and more on the Department of Justice, shifting the burden of justification away from those representing blacks and onto voting officials, and making extensive use of a test that looked to the effects of official action rather than requiring proof of discriminatory purpose. These techniques were rooted in the litigation of the preceding seven years. That litigation flowed from an unusual tacit partnership: black citizens attempted to register to vote, and the United States Department of Justice brought suits when local registrars discriminatorily denied them the vote.
Sumter County, Alabama exemplifies this process. A detailed examination of the government's case, tried in 1964, to remedy racial discrimination in voter registration in Sumter County supports the Supreme Court's explanation, in South Carolina v. Katzenbach, of the origins of the Voting Rights Act. It is instructive to examine that case in detail, to humanize the very general story told by the Supreme Court. Close examination of this case - from investigation, to filing of suit, to trial, to decision, to aftermath - moves the story from the general to the specific. However, the case provides illumination in another way. It not only helps explain why the Voting Rights Act was enacted, but also helps us understand the content of the Act. The remarkable provisions of this law did not spring full grown from the Johnson administration or the Congress, but were based in large part on lessons learned in the government's litigation of cases such as Sumter County's.
Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: August 18, 2003
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