BC Expert: Voting Rights Act 50th Anniversary
PROFESSOR PATRICK J. MANEY, HISTORY DEPARTMENT, BOSTON COLLEGE
(617) 285-6431 (cell)
Prof. Maney is a political and presidential historian, with a particular focus on American history from 1865 to the present. He is the author of a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt titled The Roosevelt Presence: The Life and Legacy of FDR. He is working on a book on Bill Clinton’s presidency. Professor Maney has appeared on public television, C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and in Cognoscenti.
“If you were to pick the ten most important measures in all of American history, certainly the Voting Rights Act would be one of them and the Civil Rights Act, which passed the year before, would be another,” says Boston College History Professor Patrick Maney, a political and presidential historian. “It’s really an amazing thing.”
Technically, African Americans were given the right to vote in 1870 after the Civil War, but states in the deep South threw up legislative roadblocks to prevent that from happening. Some states instituted literacy tests but because a lot of whites in the South were illiterate, a loophole was created.
“It was called the Understanding Clause where if you were illiterate but able to answer to the white registrar’s satisfaction a question about the Constitution, you could still be eligible to vote,” says Maney, an expert on the 20th century. “It was incredibly discriminatory how it was administered. The white applicants would get a real easy question about the Constitution while black applicants would get one that was almost impossible to answer. One black applicant was barred from voting because he didn’t know how many bubbles came from a bar of soap.”
Through the years, rulings by the Supreme Court chipped away at the discriminatory restrictions but it wasn’t until August 6, 1965, amidst a groundswell of support from the Civil Rights movement, that the federal government stepped in to protect the voting rights of all.
“What the Voting Rights Act did was designated seven states in the deep South that had a history of racial discrimination and mandated that every change at the state or local level in voting requirements or procedures had to be approved by the federal government,” says Maney. “And that made the difference.
“Anyone who knows the history of the century-long struggle for voting rights has reason to be concerned with current efforts by some of the states today to erect new barriers in the path of voting," Maney concluded.
Contact information for additional Boston College faculty sources on a range of subjects is available at: /offices/pubaf/journalist/experts.html
Office of News and Public Affairs
(617) 552-3630 (office)
(617) 943-4323 (cell)