Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through the library and also offers a list of current civil rights organizations.

1965 Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 offered African Americans a way to get around the barriers at the state and local levels that had prevented them from exercising their 15th Amendment right to vote. After it was signed into law by LBJ, Congress amended it five more times to expand its scope and offer more protections. This law has been called one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted by the Dept. of Justice. Its gutting by the decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 has led to more restrictive voting laws in at least 7 states.

The sections of the Voting Rights Act affected by Shelby County were 4(b) and 5. Section 4(b) contained a coverage formula designed to encompass jurisdictions that were the most pervasively discriminatory and hold them liable to special provisions within the Voting Rights Act, to ensure that previously-barred minorities within those jurisdictions would be protected and able to practice their right to vote. The coverage formula was always considered controversial because it singled out specific jurisdictions, most of which were in the Deep South. In Shelby County, the Supreme Court declared the coverage formula unconstitutional because the criteria used were outdated and thus violated principles of equal state sovereignty and federalism. The other special provisions that were dependent on the coverage formula, such as the Section 5 pre-clearance requirement, remained valid law, but without a valid coverage formula these provisions became unenforceable. The pre-clearance requirement meant that jurisdictions which fell under 4(b) had to get federal approval to any changes they attempted to make in their election laws. With this requirement gone, states with a history of discriminatory behavior could now make changes without federal approval.

Notable Supreme Court Cases:

  • Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. ___ (2013) - in this case, the Court held that section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional because the formula used to determine coverage was based on data that was 40 years old, making it no longer representative to current needs. This caused a ripple effect among several states, such as Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin, all of whom have passed voter ID laws that removed online voter registration, early voting, same-day registration, and pre-registration for teens about to turn 18. In each case, the laws have become more restrictive.

Library Resources:

  • Bruce J. Schulman, Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism: A Brief Biography with Documents, E847 .S35 2007 (Main Campus)
  • Laurie Collier Hillstrom, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, JK1924 .H55 2009
  • Charles S. Bullock III, et al., The Rise and Fall of the Voting Rights Act, KF4891 .B85 2016

Voting Rights Case