Civil rights legislation sparked powerful backlash that's still shaping American politics

Julian Maxwell Hayter, Associate Professor of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

For nearly 60 years, conservatives have been trying to gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. As a scholar of American voting rights. I believe their long game is finally bearing fruit.

The 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder seemed to be the death knell for the Voting Rights Act.

In that case, the court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that supervised elections in areas with a history of disenfranchisement.

The Supreme Court is currently considering a case, Merrill v. Milligan, that might gut what remains of the act after Shelby.

Conservative legal strategists want the court to say that Alabama – where African Americans make up approximately one-quarter of the population, still live in concentrated and segregated communities and yet have only one majority-Black voting district out of seven state districts – should not consider race when drawing district boundaries.

These challenges to minority voting rights didn’t emerge overnight. The Shelby and Merrill cases are the culmination of a decadeslong conservative legal strategy designed to roll back the political gains of the civil rights movement itself.


The realization of civil and voting rights laws during the 1960s is often portrayed as a victory over racism. The rights revolution actually gave rise to more bigotry.

The Voting Rights Act criminalized the use of discriminatory tests and devices, including literacy tests and grandfather clauses that exempted white people from the same tests that stopped Black people from voting. It also required federal supervision of certain local Southern elections and barred these jurisdictions from making electoral changes without explicit approval from Washington.

These provisions worked.

After 1965, Black voters instigated a complexion revolution in Southern politics, as African Americans voted in record numbers and elected an unprecedented number of Black officials.


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