The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) prohibits slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) grants citizenship to anyone “born or naturalized in the Unites States” and guarantees every person due process and equal protection rights; and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) provides that “[t]he right of citizens of the Unites States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” All three of these Amendments also empower Congress to enforce provisions of the amendments through “appropriate legislation”.
It took Congress nearly 100 years to legislatively enforce the provisions of the three Reconstruction Amendments. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted July 2, 1964, is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation in the United States that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and in facilities that served the general public (known as “public accommodations”). The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark piece of federal legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson at the height of the American Civil Rights movement. Congress later amended the Act five times to expand its protection.
Since then, the struggle to protect, expand, or deny civil and voting rights continues. In 2014, the discourse over civil and voting rights reached a critical stage in light of recent events including protests in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York City; and the Supreme Court’s decision on Shelby County v. Holder. In a 5-4 split decision, the U.S Supreme Court ruled that the Voting Rights Act had achieved its main purpose. Specifically, the Court overturned Section 4 of the Act, which laid out the formula for determining which states had to seek approval prior to enacting new voting laws. Writers and critics have pointed out that we have a national problem on our hands. Isabel Wilkerson, writing in the New York Times, suggests, “The protests are a referendum on the black condition since the Great Migration.” But at the heart of the southern migrants and their movement North and Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, was always the issue of freedom in voting. These are tangible and compelling reasons for convening our 2015 symposium on Civil and Voting Rights: Past, Present, and Future.