In fact, the Act was viewed as probably the most effective civil rights law ever enacted. When it was passed in 1965, the South had only 72 African American elected officials. The Act immediately outlawed the worst Jim Crow laws such as literacy tests and other devices that kept African Americans and other minorities out of the voting booth. Through active federal enforcement and the persistent and hard fought efforts of civil rights groups, the Act began to empower racial minorities meaningfully, particularly African Americans who by 1976 had elected 1,944 men and women of their race to office. And gradually through court decisions and Congressional amendments, it became a powerful weapon against the more subtle schemes that in the past had rendered minority votes all but meaningless.1

Particularly important in this regard was the Congressional amendment to Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act which made it easier for minority voters to establish claims of vote dilution. This resulted in an increased awareness of the need to reflect more fairly minority voting strength in voting district plans. The major impact of this amendment to the Voting Rights Act was reflected in the round of state and Congressional redistricting that began in 1990. This process was presided over in many Southern states by Black legislators who had been in office long enough to hold leadership positions in their state Democratic parties.2  By 1992, three years before its 30th anniversary, there were 5,000 Black elected officials in the South—68 times the 1965 figure.3

Although this "quiet revolution" had been studied, analyzed and dissected by numerous political scientists and others, by 1992 the one group that had not been heard from in great numbers were the Black men and women who were elected to office as a direct result of the Act. It was an important missing and compelling element of the Act’s history. Because many of those men and women, first elected in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s were still in office in 1992, and had not produced official records of their tenure in office, it was important to document their perspective by using the methodology of the in-depth oral history interview. In order to create a manageable project, the focus was narrowed primarily to state legislators in the eight states initially covered by the Act: Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

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November 1999