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Voting Rights


North and South, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Civil Rights activists campaigned for laws preventing discrimination in education, employment, housing and voting rights. In 1963, the effort to register voters in Alabama intensified. Black citizens who tried to register encountered great obstacles - poll taxes, literacy tests and lengthy questionnaires. They were subjected to intimidation and threatened with the loss of jobs, bodily harm and death.

Martin Luther King, Jr., and other national leaders, including Malcolm X, had stopped in Selma, Alabama, as they had in other Deep South communities, to show their support for voter campaigns. Protesters attempted to call national attention to local violations and, in February 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a protester from Marion, Alabama, was killed. In Jackson's memory, Selma protesters planned a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital.

The march was scheduled for Sunday, March 7, 1965. But, Dr. King was called to Washington to meet with President Lyndon Johnson. That Sunday, about 600 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River. Selma's sheriff and 200 troopers and deputies, some on horseback, were waiting on the other side. When marchers refused to turn back, the officers attacked, using tear gas, bullwhips and clubs. One of those marchers was eight-year-old Sheyann Webb. Seventeen marchers were hospitalized on that "Bloody Sunday."

Television brought this event into the living rooms of a shocked nation. In the next few weeks, thousands of people converged on Selma to aid the voter registration drive. On March 21, the Selma-to-Montgomery march began again, this time with federal protection. One historian-activist has said that this march turned out to be "the last traditional, major march of the southern movement." Five months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, the most comprehensive legislation ever to protect every citizen's right to vote.

Voting Rights Timeline

1789 Ratification of the U.S. Constitution; first elections held

1807 Women lose the right to vote in all states

1830 Most states have abolished property and religious voting tests

1838 Kentucky reintroduces women's suffrage for widows

1855 Blacks can vote in only 5 states

1870 15th Amendment enfranchises black males

1876 Black voters in the South denied participation

1889 Wyoming allows women full voting rights

1915 Grandfather Clause used to disenfranchise black males declared unconstitutional

1920 19th Amendment gives women the right to vote

1924 Indian Citizenship Act provided for suffrage for Native Americans

1944 "White Primary" declared unconstitutional

1961 23rd Amendment gives vote to citizens of Washington, DC

1962 New Mexico was the last state to extend the right to vote to Native Americans

1964 24th Amendment abolishes the poll tax for federal elections

1965 Voting Rights Act outlaws literacy tests and sends federal registrars to the South

1971 26th Amendment gives 18-20-year-olds the right to vote

1975 Amended Voting Rights Act enables poor speakers of English to participate in the political process

1993 National Voter Registration Act makes registration more uniform and accessible ("Motor Voter")

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