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Setting the Stage

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Amendment 15
United States Constitution
Ratified February 2, 1870

In 1965, African Americans in the United States had possessed the theoretical right to vote for almost a hundred years.  Under Reconstruction in the 1870s, many black men in the South did vote.  Some who had been slaves only a few years before were elected to local and, in some cases, national office.  By the turn of the 20th century, however, white “Redeemer” governments had reclaimed the legislatures in former Confederate states and adopted new constitutions disenfranchising African-American voters.  Black citizens attempting to exercise their constitutional right to vote encountered barriers that they often found insurmountable.  These included poll taxes, literacy tests, clauses that limited voting to people whose ancestors had voted in the past, and party primary elections that were limited to whites.

Men and women working for civil rights had long recognized that gaining the right to vote was central to achieving full citizenship for African Americans.  The long-established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had successfully challenged the restrictive primary and other obstacles to black voter registration, but other, younger organizations had grown impatient with the slow rate of progress through the legal system.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) turned to mass demonstrations and nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.  Martin Luther King, Jr., the charismatic leader of SCLC, became internationally known for promoting, supporting, and participating in nonviolent direct action seeking civil rights for African Americans.  In December 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming, at age 35, the youngest person ever to receive that honor.

Peaceful demonstrations attracted media coverage, particularly when they were met with violent opposition.  This helped generate the widespread support necessary for the passage of civil rights legislation.  This legislation, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sought to achieve equal education, access to places of public accommodation and transportation, and equal employment.  In 1965, however, most Southern blacks were still unable to overcome the obstacles set up to prevent them from voting.

 

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