Free at Last to Vote: The Alabama Origins of the 1965 Voting Rights Act
Brian K. Landsberg
University of the Pacific - McGeorge School of Law
Brian K. Landsberg, FREE AT LAST TO VOTE: THE ALABAMA ORIGINS OF THE 1965 VOTING RIGHTS ACT, University Press of Kansas, April 2007
Two origins of the Voting Rights Act are familiar to us. Most prominent is the March 1965 assault of Alabama state troopers and Dallas County, Alabama deputy sheriffs and their posse on civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The Supreme Court tells a slightly different story. In upholding the constitutionality of this extraordinary law, the Court emphasized the history of denials of voting rights "through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution." There is however a different story. 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 voting rights cases in the deep South in the early 1960's. This book explains how Department of Justice litigation under the 1957, 1960 and 1964 Civil Rights Acts contributed to the content of the Voting Rights Act. It places flesh on the skeletal story of the origins of the Voting Rights Act told in other books, and expands on the conventional understanding of the origins of the Voting Rights Act, which fails to explain how the substantive content of the Act was shaped, emphasizing instead the crisis that triggered congressional resolve to "do something" decisive to end racial discrimination against black citizens seeking to exercise their right to vote. Once the public was determined to "do something," it would still have to decide what that something should be. What should the legislation provide, beyond what had already been enacted?
My study focuses on three of those cases, one from each of the federal judicial districts in Alabama, each tried by a different federal judge. In one of the cases, the district court fashioned very effective relief; in one the court's relief was less effective; and in one the federal court, at every step of the way, resisted providing effective relief. The set of cases serves to explain how the litigation led both to the development of refined legal standards and remedies which would serve as models for the Voting Rights Act and to delays and disappointments which would serve to justify the stringent remedies of the Act.
Keywords: Voting Rights Act, Legislation, Race Discrimination, Alabama, Legislation, Election Law, Racial Discrimination, African-American History, Alabama Government
JEL Classification: H11, H77, J71, J78, K10, K19, K40, K41, K42Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: April 4, 2007
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