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Answer the following questions thoughtfully and thoroughly. The questions are primarily based on the readings from Ballot Blocked: The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act, but you are welcome to draw on other readings to supplement your responses. Make sure to cite any idea that it not your own original thought, and to use your own words (paraphrase rather than quote) whenever possible. write the question before the answerIn Ballot Blocked: The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act, what research question is Rhodes trying to answer? What is his overall argument (answer to the question)?What is Rhodes’ methodological approach to answering this question? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?According to Rhodes, what did the Voting Rights Act do? What three factors contributed to its enactment?In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), what was the Court’s rationale? In other words, how did the majority support its decision?




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Liberal Ascendance and Enactment
of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Copyright © 2017. Stanford University Press. All rights reserved.
where hundreds of Negroes are being allowed this week, for the
first time, to register to vote,” the Boston Globe grandly announced on August 12, 1965. “The segregationists scowl and mutter darkly; but their hands,
which have so often interfered in the past, are stayed by the knowledge that
the might of the Federal government is solidly on the side of the Negroes.”1
Setting aside the purple prose, the conclusions of the anonymous editorialist were broadly correct. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed into law only days earlier, marked a decisive break
with past federal civil rights laws that attempted, albeit feebly, to address the
problem of widespread black disenfranchisement in the South.
Whereas previous acts of Congress had established litigation as the sole
method of federal voting rights enforcement, the VRA authorized executive
branch officials to intervene in southern states without the prior blessing of
the federal courts. The Act suspended literacy tests in jurisdictions with low
black registration and electoral participation, and it empowered the Department of Justice both to register African Americans frustrated by local registrars and to monitor the conduct of elections in jurisdictions in which racial discrimination was rampant. More radically, the VRA called for advance
federal approval—or “preclearance”—of changes in election rules and regulations in jurisdictions with histories of low black electoral participation.
Enactment of the VRA resulted from the confluence of three critical de24
Rhodes, Jesse H.. Ballot Blocked : The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act, Stanford University Press, 2017. ProQuest
Ebook Central,
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Copyright © 2017. Stanford University Press. All rights reserved.
Liberal Ascendance and Enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
velopments: intense frustration among civil rights activists and, increasingly,
executive branch officials with the transparent failures of existing voting
rights law; the ascendance of an organized and militant civil rights movement with the capacity to dramatize the nation’s worst racial injustices; and
the election to the federal government of a coalition of civil rights liberals—
based primarily but not exclusively within the northern Democratic Party—
with the political will to carry through strong civil rights reforms in the face
of strident resistance from southern Democrats and conservative Republicans. The convergence of these three developments finally permitted the
transcendence of the political, legal, and institutional obstacles that had long
thwarted effective federal voting rights enforcement.
Even as the cause of civil rights liberalism surged to full tide, however, institutions with more limited exposure to the pressures of social movement activism and electoral politics played a critical—if contradictory—role in shaping the VRA. Away from the gaze of the public, officials within the Johnson
administration made conscious choices that blunted the transformative potential of the Act. The Department of Justice limited the scope of federal registration and election-monitoring efforts to areas with the worst civil rights
records and declined to exercise vigorous oversight of changes to election regulations in southern jurisdictions covered by the Act. Yet at almost the same
time, the liberal justices of the Supreme Court ratified the major provisions
of the VRA and—more radically—interpreted the preclearance provisions of
the Act to apply to a broader range of election changes and structures than
was clearly contemplated in the text of the statute. These crosscutting developments altered the meaning of the law in unforeseen ways, establishing important gaps between what the VRA seemed to require on its face and the way
it operated in practice.
At a broader level, the enactment of the VRA gave rise to a new voting
rights politics. Before 1965, national Democratic Party officials sought to suppress ever-expanding conflict over civil rights between the party’s northernbased coalition of African Americans, left-leaning workers, and progressives
and its traditional center of power in the segregated “Solid South.”2 But the
party’s embrace of the VRA in 1965 signaled a new era in Democratic politics,
in which the northern wing and civil rights liberalism became permanently
ascendant. As national Democratic Party officials publicly embraced the
cause of civil rights, Republican elected officials increasingly adopted conservative positions on racial matters, both to better reflect the preferences of ex-
Rhodes, Jesse H.. Ballot Blocked : The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act, Stanford University Press, 2017. ProQuest
Ebook Central,
Created from vt on 2020-09-02 06:21:15.
Chapter 1
isting coalition partners and to appeal more effectively to whites alienated by
the Democrats’ racial liberalism. Ironically, just as the VRA was beginning to
transform southern electoral politics, shift ing party alignments threatened to
destabilize the foundations of political support that had made adoption of the
Act possible.
The Kennedy-Johnson Years and the
Limitations of Voting Rights Enforcement
Copyright © 2017. Stanford University Press. All rights reserved.
The modest achievements of a massive southwide registration drive conducted by civil rights organizations between 1962 and 1964—and the increasing incidence of white violence against organized voting rights campaigns—
drew mounting public attention to the suppression of black citizenship and
clearly established the necessity of more effective federal machinery to protect minority voting rights. Although both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations delayed voting rights reforms to avoid outraging southern Democrats, Johnson (under overwhelming pressure from pro–civil rights coalition
partners and liberal members of Congress) belatedly adopted the cause as
his own.
The Kennedy Administration’s Approach
to Voting Rights Enforcement
The waning years of Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency witnessed
the passage of the first two civil rights measures since the end of Reconstruction—the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960. The 1957 Act protected the right
to vote in federal, state, and local elections against obstruction by both state
and private action, and it authorized federal civil suits against individuals
who sought to hinder registration or voting because of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It also created both the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), which was authorized to study racial matters
and investigate civil rights violations, and the Civil Rights Division, a new
unit within the Department of Justice with the power to scrutinize and prosecute alleged abuses. Under the Act, the Department could seek injunctions
in federal court against actions intended to “interfere with the right to vote in
any election in which a federal official is to be elected.”3
The 1960 Act modestly strengthened its predecessor. To check obstruction
of federal investigations by recalcitrant southern officials, it required localities to maintain voter registration records and make them available for review
Rhodes, Jesse H.. Ballot Blocked : The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act, Stanford University Press, 2017. ProQuest
Ebook Central,
Created from vt on 2020-09-02 06:21:15.
Copyright © 2017. Stanford University Press. All rights reserved.
Liberal Ascendance and Enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
by federal officials. The 1960 Act also authorized federal district courts to appoint voting referees to review rejected registration applicants in jurisdictions
in which county registrars engaged in patterns or practices of discrimination.4
Relatively cautious in its approach to racial matters, the Eisenhower administration declined to enforce the 1957 and 1960 Acts in a vigorous fashion.5 The election of Democrat John F. Kennedy, who had campaigned actively for black votes, to the presidency in 1960 raised expectations among
civil rights activists that progress on the voting rights front would be forthcoming.6 But these hopes were soon dashed. Convinced that a push for further civil rights advances would shatter the Democratic Party and obstruct
his reelection, Kennedy insisted “that new civil rights legislation was neither needed at the present time nor feasible,” recalled James Farmer of the
Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).7 (Kennedy and top administration allies went so far as to insist that proscription of the use of poll taxes in federal elections, which everyone knew were used by southern states to deny
African Americans the ballot, could be accomplished only by constitutional
amendment, even though the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments seemed
to provide ample basis for eliminating them by statutory means.)8 As an alternative to new legislation, Kennedy prioritized litigation and executive action, which he hoped would permit incremental progress without infuriating
southern whites.9 Civil rights activists scoffed at this piecemeal approach; Roy
Wilkins of the NAACP charged the administration with “smooth[ing] Unguentine on a stinging burn even though for a moment (or for perhaps a year)
it could not bind up a joint.”10
Wanting to forestall the escalation of racial disturbances in southern
states instigated by the 1961 Freedom Rides, however, the Kennedy White
House sought new means to advance African American voting rights. Kennedy’s assistant attorney general for civil rights (and later attorney general)
Nicholas Katzenbach explained that administration officials privately cherished the notion that if they could “get [African Americans] voting fast
enough [they would] not have these other [civil rights] problems.”11 With this
objective in mind, Kennedy administration officials connected major civil
rights organizations, including the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership
Conference (SCLC), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC),
and CORE, with private philanthropic funding to finance suff rage campaigns
in southern states.12 Although some activists feared that collaboration with
the administration would undermine the independence of the movement, the
Rhodes, Jesse H.. Ballot Blocked : The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act, Stanford University Press, 2017. ProQuest
Ebook Central,
Created from vt on 2020-09-02 06:21:15.
Chapter 1
Copyright © 2017. Stanford University Press. All rights reserved.
major civil rights organizations eventually agreed that the risk was worth it.
SCLC officials argued that this approach could transform scattered registration drives into “well-oiled machinery in voter registration” that could help
relieve “our Southern dilemma.”13
Thus, in early 1962 these organizations joined forces under the aegis of
the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project (VEP) to organize
“greatly enlarged registration programs in the South,” according to civil rights
lawyer Wiley Branton, who directed the Project.14 At least twenty-seven VEP
campaigns—led by professional staff but energized by thousands of youthful volunteer “shock troops”—were in the field by September 1963. Under the
watchful gaze of hostile whites, campaigners organized citizenship training
schools, distributed political literature, orchestrated registration rallies, and
attempted to register voters in communities throughout the Deep South.15
Whereas Kennedy administration officials treasured the naïve belief that
these projects would supplant more provocative tactics, some movement leaders hoped they would ignite serious racial confrontations that would force the
federal government to intercede on behalf of black would-be voters.16
The Limitations of Federal Voting Rights Laws
Despite the heroic efforts of voting rights activists, however, the accomplishments of the registration drives were modest. To be sure, as the Baltimore Afro-American reported in late 1964, “the numbers of registered voters in 11 Southern states . . . doubled, from 1.1 million to more than 2 million
since the 1960 presidential election,” so that black registration in that region reached approximately 43 percent.17 But as Harvard Sitkoff, David Garrow, and others have shown, this good news was tempered by the continuing disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans in the conservative
strongholds of the Deep South. Indeed, black registration rates for Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina were 23 percent, 32 percent,
6.7 percent, and 39 percent, respectively.18
These discouraging results were attributable to the intensity of ongoing
white resistance to black enfranchisement in the Deep South, the unwillingness of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to aggressively enforce the
law, and the structural deficiencies of the 1957 and 1960 Acts. In many southern counties, both subtle and blatant obstruction of black registration and
voting continued unabated. States throughout the South enforced prerequisites to voting—such as rules that voters exhibit the ability to read, write, and
provide a “reasonable interpretation” of provisions from the US Constitution
Rhodes, Jesse H.. Ballot Blocked : The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act, Stanford University Press, 2017. ProQuest
Ebook Central,
Created from vt on 2020-09-02 06:21:15.
Copyright © 2017. Stanford University Press. All rights reserved.
Liberal Ascendance and Enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
or state constitutions—that were difficult for many disadvantaged black (and
white) citizens to attain. These rules also invested white county registrars
with enormous discretion to determine whether applicants passed or failed
their assessments, and registrars employed this power in aggressive fashion to
deny African American applicants access to the ballot.19
The discriminatory administration of election laws was frequently accompanied by threats—and execution—of economic coercion and physical violence against African Americans seeking to exercise their rights as citizens.
Because the economic circumstances faced by the vast majority of southern blacks were precarious, the mere threat of economic retaliation by white
business owners, creditors, and government officials often sufficed to keep
them from seeking the vote.20 When blacks attempted to assert their citizenship rights, retribution was swift. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO)—a coalition of civil rights groups—reported in mid-1964 that
in Mississippi, “large numbers of Negro workers have been fi red from jobs on
the plantations and in the towns because of involvement with the civil rights
movement. . . . To add further pressure, some county authorities have on occasion ended Federal Welfare programs, denying displaced Negroes unemployment relief.”21
White violence against African Americans who dared assert their citizenship rights also increased in frequency and savagery. Between January 1961
and March 1963, SNCC activists counted no fewer than “64 acts of violence
and intimidation against Negroes in Mississippi [alone],” almost all of which
were “directly related to efforts by Negroes to register to vote.”22 Voter registration efforts in other states met with similar fates. A major 1963 voter registration campaign organized by CORE in Plaquemine, Louisiana, was cruelly suppressed by what James Farmer described as “mounted troopers with
their prod rods, [who] rode down the marchers like cowboys on a fearsome
roundup.”23 In Selma, Alabama, hundreds of local voting rights activists were
assaulted or imprisoned between 1962 and early 1965.24
Yet Kennedy refused to deploy federal authorities to guarantee activists’
safety. The official position of the administration was that “the federal government has no police type organization to enforce the law,” as Kennedy’s assistant FBI director Courtney Evans explained, and that state governments
were responsible for maintaining public order within their respective borders.25 Since state governments throughout the South were either active participants or complicit partners in violence and coercion against aspiring black
Rhodes, Jesse H.. Ballot Blocked : The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act, Stanford University Press, 2017. ProQuest
Ebook Central,
Created from vt on 2020-09-02 06:21:15.
Copyright © 2017. Stanford University Press. All rights reserved.
Chapter 1
voters, the position of the White House was patently absurd. In truth, Kennedy’s subdued reaction reflected his deep ambivalence about the civil rights
movement. “Until the end of 1963 [when the crisis in Birmingham, Alabama,
finally pushed Kennedy to advocate a new civil rights act], every big demonstration or turmoil that Martin King led was a problem for the president,” explained assistant attorney general for civil rights Burke Marshall, insofar as it
exacerbated the very racial and regional tensions within the Democratic coalition that Kennedy desired to suppress.26
The existing system of federal civil rights laws further hamstrung the capacity of the Kennedy administration to advance African American voting
rights in the face of entrenched white resistance. Under the 1957 and 1960
Acts, the chief means available to the Department of Justice of combatting
voting rights violations was to file suit in federal court to enjoin perpetrators
of discrimination against continuation of unconstitutional practices. Given
the scale of southern intransigence, however, this “was just an impossible system of law enforcement,” Nicholas Katzenbach explained. “The courts had
been very, very slow on this; people obviously were qualified to vote who were
being turned down; then we had to bring a lawsuit; then we had to go through
all the appeals and another election would go by. . . . It would take forever in
terms of personnel and work and everything else.”27
Due to the limits of federal law, enforcement problems would have been
endemic under the most auspicious of circumstances. But conditions were
hardly ideal. Jurisdictions targeted by the CRD obstructed federal investigations at every turn, necessitating additional litigation.28 Once cases were
brought to trial, segregationist southern judges—some of whom Kennedy appointed in order to placate powerful southern Democratic senators—often
frustrated enforcement through adverse decisions or intentional delay of rulings.29 And when federal courts sided with the Department of Justice, officials
in the Department noted that state and local officials routinely flouted their
rulings, “requir[ing] further attention to see if court orders are being complied with.”30
Civil Rights Mobilization and
the Origins of the Selma Crisis
Despite the abject failure of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts—and the limited improvements brought about by the 1964 Civil Rights Act—prospects for
Rhodes, Jesse H.. Ballot Blocked : The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act, Stanford University Press, 2017. ProQuest
Ebook Central,
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