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The Voting Rights Act and LDF, A Fifty Year History

The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) commemorates this consequential
day in the history of our democracy: the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act
of 1965.
LDF litigated the first voting rights cases of the 20th Century, even before the Voting Rights Act
was passed. Thurgood Marshall, who later became an Associate Justice of the United States
Supreme Court, founded LDF in 1940. One of his first cases was Smith v. Allwright (1944),
which successfully challenged the all-white Democratic primary in Texas on behalf of Lonnie
Smith, who was denied the right to vote by a local election judge in the Democratic primary.
Marshall later called the ruling his most important Supreme Court victory. The Court held: The
United States is a constitutional democracy. Its organic law grants to all citizens a right to
participate in the choice of elected officials without restriction by any state because of race.
Marshall recognized the ruling as a giant milestone in the progress of Negro Americans toward
full citizenship, but he later cautioned that [t]he collapse of the white Democratic primary,
despite fond hopes, has not resulted in full participation by all in the political life of the South.
History proved Thurgood Marshall to be correct. With only five percent of eligible African
Americans registered to vote, few African Americans could take advantage of the 1944 ruling.
Moreover, Southern states strongly reacted to Smith v. Allwright by enacting a plethora of
measures to escape the scrutiny of state action by federal courts. South Carolina, for example,
immediately repealed dozens of laws relating to state regulation of primaries, giving local
officials or private parties authority to discriminate on the basis of race. Marshall challenged this
move on behalf of George Elmore, a Columbia, SC business owner, prevailing in the district
court and on appeal in Elmore v. Rice (1947).
When Alabama adopted the Boswell Amendment, requiring voting registrants to understand
and explain an article of the Constitution, LDF convinced the Supreme Court to declare the
literacy test unconstitutional in Schnell v. Davis (1949). LDF won another victory in Terry v.
Adams (1953), with a ruling that a political partys election machinery had deprived African
Americans of their right to vote in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment. Later, in Gomillion v.
Lightfoot (1960), LDF successfully challenged a statute redefining the boundaries of Tuskegee,
Alabama as a device to disenfranchise black citizens.
Each voting rights success that LDF achieved in court would only inspire bolder state and local
changes to voting laws to allow for discrimination. It was clear that a broad, systemic prohibition
against state-enforced discrimination in voting was necessary. The Voting Rights Act of 1965
immediately removed barriers such as literacy tests, poll taxes and voucher requirements that had
long kept African Americans from participating in the political process. It was an historic

advancement toward ending discrimination in all its forms. Over the years, the Act has
enfranchised communities of color all over the country and allowed voters of color to elect
candidates of their choice.
LDF played a significant role during the momentous year that produced the Voting Rights Act.
As our commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday recounts, LDF brought
immediate legal action in response to the brutal attacks on peaceful voting rights marchers
seeking to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in protest of voting discrimination. With our
cooperating attorneys in Alabama, LDF represented Hosea Williams, John Lewis and Amelia
Boynton in seeking an injunction in federal court to allow the march to safely go forward with
guarantees of safety. At the conclusion of the court proceedings, U.S. District Judge Frank
Johnson asked LDF to devise a logistical plan for the march, which LDF lawyers proceeded to
draw up in their hotel room in Montgomery, Alabama. Judge Johnson granted our request to
allow the march to proceed in Williams v. Wallace, and the marchers concluded their journey in
Montgomery, Alabama on March 25. Within five months, Congress passed and President
Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
President Johnsons remarks at the signing of the Voting Rights Act were infused with urgency
and foreshadowed the extensive litigation necessary to achieve compliance with this new federal
This good Congress, the 89th Congress, acted swiftly in passing this act. I intend to act with
equal dispatch in enforcing this act. And tomorrow at 1 p.m., the Attorney General has
been directed to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the poll tax in the State of
Mississippi. This will begin the legal process which, I confidently believe, will very soon
prohibit any state from requiring the payment of money in order to exercise the right to
vote. And also by tomorrow the Justice Department will have officially certified the
states where discrimination exists. I have, in addition, requested the Department of Justice
to work all through this weekend so that on Monday morning next, they can designate
many counties where past experience clearly shows that Federal action is necessary and
required. And by Tuesday morning, trained Federal examiners will be at work registering
eligible men and women in 10 to 15 counties. And on that same day, next Tuesday,
additional poll tax suits will be filed in the States of Texas, Alabama, and Virginia. And I
pledge you that we will not delay, or we will not hesitate, or we will not turn aside until
Americans of every race and color and origin in this country have the same right as all
others to share in the process of democracy.
For the past 50 years, LDF has strongly enforced the Voting Rights Act, including litigating
seminal cases before the Supreme Court seeking robust interpretations of the Act. These cases
included challenges to methods of election, White v. Regester (1975); challenges to
congressional and state legislative redistricting, Beer v. United States (1976); Thornburg v.

Gingles (1986); United States v. Hays (1995); Bush v. Vera (1996); Shaw v. Hunt (1996); Easley
v. Cromartie (2001); League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry (2006); and lawsuits seeking
coverage of judicial elections under the Voting Rights Act, Chisom v. Roemer (1991); Houston
Lawyers' Ass'n v. Atty. Gen., (1991). Just this week, LDF obtained a preliminary injunction that
barred Fayette County, GA from conducting elections using a discriminatory at-large system that
kept Black candidates from every winning a seat on the County Commission or Board of
Education for over a century.
In the legislative arena, LDF played a significant role in every reauthorization of the Voting
Rights Act in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. Each of these was reauthirizations passed with
overwhelming bipartisan support and signed into law by Republican presidents, which was no
small political feat. Working with grassroots advocates and other civil rights organizations, LDF
spearheaded support for the Acts renewal and testified to the statutes continuing effectiveness
and critical role in upholding our democratic principles.
LDF also helped to stave off constitutional attacks on the Voting Rights Act that were spurred in
part, by the successful bi-partisan reauthorizations of the Act. South Carolina v. Katzenbach
(1966), City of Rome v. United States (1980); Lopez v. Monterey County (1999). The last
reauthorization in 2006 was no different. Within a week of President Bushs signing of The
Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, And Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization And
Amendments Act Of 2006, a small water district in Northwest Austin, Texas challenged its
constitutionality, arguing that Congress did not have the power to reauthorize those provisions
requiring jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit voting changes before their
enactment. LDF intervened to defend the Act on behalf of the African-American voters directly
impacted by the law, and participated in oral argument before the Supreme Court. In its ruling,
Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193 (2009), the Court
ruled on a statutory question, sidestepping the constitutional question and leaving it open for
another day.
That day came when Shelby County, Alabama mounted its own constitutional challenge to the
Voting Rights Act. The City of Calera, which lies within Shelby County, enacted a
discriminatory redistricting plan without seeking preclearance, leading to the loss of the citys
sole African-American councilman, Ernest Montgomery. The Justice Department objected,
requiring Calera to draw a nondiscriminatory redistricting plan and conduct another election in
which Mr. Montgomery regained his seat. This prompted Shelby County to challenge the
preclearance requirement under the Voting Rights Act. LDF intervened to defend the Act on
behalf of Councilman Ernest Montgomery, several local African-American community leaders
and voters, and participated in oral argument before the Supreme Court. In Shelby County,
Alabama v. Holder, 570 U.S. 2013, the Court found that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act
the formula for determining which jurisdictions must seek prior approval, or preclearance, of
voting changeswas unconstitutional because it relied on historical data. However, the Court

upheld the preclearance mechanism itself, Section 5, and suggested that Congress could enact
another formula to redress voting discrimination based on current data reflecting current needs.
Since Shelby County, LDF has seen a resurgence of laws and practices around the country to
increase barriers to voting and dilute the voting strength of communities of color. Within minutes
of the Shelby County ruling, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted that the Voter ID
law, already found discriminatory by the Justice Department and a three-judge court, could no
longer be blocked. With the Justice Department, LDF challenged the post-Shelby implementation
as violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution, Veasey v. Perry. Last
year, a trial court found the law would create severe burdens for 600,000 registered voters and as
many as 1.2 million eligible voters, including our client, Imani Clark. Ms. Clarks Texas college
identification did not satisfy the laws stringent requirements, although a concealed carry gun
permit is acceptable. The district court found that Texas adopted the law with an
unconstitutional discriminatory purpose, amounting to a poll tax. This was the first time that a
federal court held that a photo ID law was adopted with discriminatory intent. On August 5,
2015, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal challenge under the Act against SB 14,
Texass discriminatory photo ID law in Veasey v. Texas. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund
(LDF) represents plaintiff-interveners in the case. The court upheld the finding of
discriminatory impact against voters of color, citing uncontroverted racial disparities.
With many jurisdictions no longer required to seek approval before enacting voting changes in
the post-Shelby era, it is difficult to know the full panoply of changes being implemented. The
changes we do know are deeply troubling. In Baker County, Georgia, officials wanted to
eliminate half of the polling places and replace them with two early voting centers inside police
stations, almost guaranteeing depressed participation by African Americans. In Pasadena, Texas,
local officials eliminated two council seats occupied by Latino representatives and replaced them
with at-large seats. LDF has maintained an ongoing list of such potentially discriminatory
changes around the country.
Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act in
response to Shelby County. Consistent with the Supreme Courts directive, this bill updates the
formula to require preclearance for jurisdictions with a recent history of voting discrimination
and contains other flexible, forward-thinking measures to protect against discrimination. But the
bill never advanced despite pervasive evidence of voting discrimination. In June of this year,
Members of Congress introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act. The proposals are
uniform in that they protect against voting discrimination anywhere in the country. They include
many necessary elements that will move our nation towards equal access to the democratic
process, such as: a modern preclearance formula to cover states with a pattern of discrimination
in voting; protection for voters from the types of voting changes most likely to discriminate
against people of color and language minorities; ensuring that last minute voting changes will not
adversely affect voters; expansion of the highly effective Federal Observer Program; and

enhancing the ability to apply for preclearance review and for federal courts to use discretion in
ordering a preclearance remedy.
On the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday earlier this year, LDF stood with President Obama at
the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge to celebrate the crowning moment in our nations
democracy, when the vision and struggle of everyday Americans changed the course of history.
We were joined by our clients whom we represented 50 years ago, Congressman John Lewis and
Amelia Boynton, and several of the LDF counsel and cooperating attorneys, Charles Stephen
Ralston, Fred Gray, and Solomon Seay, Jr., who represented them. President Obama gave
powerful remarks about the course of the civil rights struggle over our nations history. President
Obama used the occasion to give a rousing plea to restore the Voting Rights Act. Noting the
presence of 100 Members of Congress in Selma, he called upon them to go back to Washington,
and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore the law
this year. On this 50th Anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, LDF also calls
upon the entire membership of the 114th Congress to continue our nations ongoing march
toward realizing the promise of our democracy and pass legislation to protect voting rights of all