Historic Civil Rights Act of 1965 Celebrates a Bittersweet Birthday

The act became law 48 years ago, on Aug. 6, 1965, and has since become the topic of great controversy.

Posted: 08/06/2013 03:47 PM EDT

President Lyndon B. Johnson hands a pen to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the the signing of the Voting Rights Act  on Aug. 6, 1965. (Photo: Washington Bureau/Getty Images)

It was 48 years ago today when the nation saw a landmark piece of civil rights legislation go into effect with the enacting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Enacted in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, it was an act that sought to address and curtail discrimination that had existed in the United States, particularly in many of the states in the South, including many provisions to make voting more accessible for African-American citizens.

The Voting Rights Act became most notable for establishing federal oversight of elections administration. It carried a key provision that prohibited various states from enacting any changes in voting laws without first obtaining approval from the Department of Justice, a process known as pre-clearance.

It is that pre-clearance provision, known as Section 5 of the Act, that has long been the most controversial component of the act. The opposition to the measure grew steadily over the years, namely from Republican members of Congress who complained that it carried an unfair burden on election laws in their areas.

When Congress debated extending the act in 2006, for example, some Republican members of Congress objected to renewing the pre-clearance requirement contained in Section 5, arguing that it represented an overreach of federal power and places unwarranted bureaucratic demands on Southern states.

They also insisted that the discriminatory practices the Act was meant to eradicate no longer existed. Still, the Act was extended for 25 years with Section 5 remaining intact.

However, Section 5 was the object of a lawsuit by officials in Shelby County, Alabama, who complained that they were unfairly burdened by the provisions of the Act.

In a historic decision in June of this year, the United States Supreme Court struck down the provisions of the pre-clearance provision of the Act, meeting strong criticism by civil rights groups and President Obama.

“For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act — enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress — has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans,” Obama said, on the day of the Supreme Court ruling.

“Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”

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