What's Oral History Got to Do With Understanding Voting Rights: Reflections on the Methodology of the Voting Rights Act Documentation Project1

By Dr. Marsha J. Darling


[Please do not quote from this article or reproduce it without the permission of the author and  the publisher.]

     Although the exercise of the right to vote is expressed as the intention of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, nearly one hundred years passed before the enforcement of effective legislation paved the way for the actualization of voting rights for African Americans. While the Voting Rights Act of August 6, 1965 was not the only congressional legislation aimed at validating and implementing the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, it was the signal piece of congressional legislation because its focus rested entirely on voting rights, and it acknowledged that the letter of existing law was by itself insufficient to actualize the promise of voting rights. By the 1960s many understood that much of statutory law without an enforcement mechanism inherent in the wording of the law was an ineffectual response to mounting social pressures to actualize the promise of rights for racial/ethnic minorities.

     The Voting Rights Act and its amendments are the most far reaching piece of civil rights legislation in this century because they are the first major civil rights legislation to position the issue of enforcement, and its specific requirements, as a condition of implementation. In this vein, clearly, the drafters of the legislation knew of the longstanding white southern resistance to allowing African Americans the exercise of the vote. In many states that had been defenders of the Confederacy during the Civil War, grossly restrictive access to rights, services and accommodations for African Americans characterized the white backlash to progressive congressional legislation aimed at constitutional inclusion of African Americans during Reconstruction.

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November 1999