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John Lewis Testifies on the Need to Extend the Voting Rights Act

March 03, 1975
John Lewis Testifies on the Need to Extend the Voting Rights Act Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Speaking here in 1964 in Washington, DC, John Lewis would later serve as a Representative from Georgia for more than two decades until his death in 2020.
On this date, future Representative John Lewis of Georgia testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights on the need to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson a decade earlier, the Voting Rights Act banned discrimination at the polls and empowered the federal government to oversee the nation’s elections. The law included a “preclearance” requirement in which counties with a history of discrimination had to seek approval from the Department of Justice before making any changes to their voter laws. In 1970 Congress had amended the Voting Rights Act to require reauthorization in 1975. The subcommittee heard testimony from state legislators, Department of Justice officials, voting rights activists, state attorneys general, and Members of Congress, including Barbara Jordan of Texas and Charles B. Rangel of New York. At the time, Lewis—who in 1986 would win a seat representing an Atlanta-based district in the House—served as the executive director of the Voter Education Project, a nonpartisan organization that worked to register voters across the South. Lewis addressed the subcommittee just days before the tenth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” when he was severely beaten by state troopers during a peaceful march to protest voter discrimination in Selma, Alabama. Lewis described how the Voting Rights Act had led to a significant increase in the number of Black officeholders but called on Congress to strengthen federal enforcement powers. He cited repeated violations of the “preclearance” provision by local election officials as well as continued attempts to limit access to registration offices, “polling places in hostile all-white locations,” and burdensome qualifications for voting. “The Voting Rights Act has proved to be the life’s blood of the voting rights movement,” he said, “but we’ve only received the first infusion.” Lewis highlighted the need for a “permanent, national act” to ensure uniform protections not only for African-American voters in the South, but for the “Spanish-speaking population” and “low-income whites in the Appalachian area.” “The only requirements for registration in this Nation should be those of age, citizenship, and residence.” Five months later, on August 6, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford signed the Voting Rights Act extension into law. It reauthorized the act for seven years, banned literacy tests, and created protections for “language minorities” at the polls.

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