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Using Primary Sources in the Classroom

Civil Rights Movement Unit:
Lesson 5: Voting Rights

 

1. Background information for teachers:

 

From its beginnings into the 1960s, Alabama virtually had denied the right to vote to African Americans. The Civil War freed them from slavery and a succession of amendments to the U.S. Constitution in the Reconstruction Era conferred citizenship and the franchise upon them. However, physical and economic intimidation exercised by politically powerful white Alabamians often restricted African Americans through the end of the 19th century.

 

Suffrage provisions adopted in the 1901 state Constitution effectively disfranchised the vast majority of black Alabamians, as well as large segments of the poor white population. A dizzying array of property, literacy and poll tax requirements operated to deny African Americans the vote throughout the first half of the 20th century. Even as federal court rulings in the 1960s struck down these voting barriers one by one, local registrars in many areas continued to employ whatever tactics they felt were necessary to impede black registration. The Selma to Montgomery March of March 1965 brought national attention to the continuing problem encouraging the U.S. Congress to pass, and President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (August 6). It provided federal (rather than local) examiners to register voters in counties where less than 50 percent of adults were registered in 1964.

 

The percentage of registered voters among the total population, both black and white, increased enormously in consequence and changed the political landscape of Alabama.

 

2. Learning objectives:
Upon completion of this activity, students should be able to:

 

1. Use a map with population data to develop hypotheses concerning the distribution of political power in Alabama in 1962, 1964 and 1965.
2. Define and discuss the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

 

3. Suggested activities:
    1. Make copies of Document 1.

     

    2. After studying the map, ask the students to look for the following:

       

      a. How many counties had a majority of White voters?
      b. How many counties had a majority of African American voters?
      c. Using the map, what kinds of information can one gather about the population of Alabama?

       

    3. On August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Ask students to use reference materials, textbooks or computer information in order to find a description of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (Reminder: This law provided for federal examiners to register voters in counties where less than 50 percent of adults were registered in 1964.)

     

    4. Place a copy of Chart 1 on an overhead projector.

     

    5. Ask the students to use this information and compare it with their answer for 2 C above. Where had these new voters been?

     

    6. Provide the students with copies of Documents 2 and 3.

     

    7. Using TWO (2) blank Alabama maps and the information found in Documents 2 and 3, ask the students to record the difference between the registered voters of 1964 and 1965 on one of the maps. On the second map, ask the students to shade or color the counties which had an increase in black voters from the 1962 map and the 1965 newspaper list.

     

    8. Ask the students to write a paragraph with the conclusions that they have drawn from the maps.

 

DOCUMENTS:

Document 1. "1962 Breakdown of White and Negro Voters" map, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama, map L-11.

 

Document 2. "Birmingham News article 10/02/66," Alabama Department of Archives and History Public Information Subject Files - General Files, Voter Registration, SG6993, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

 

Document 3. "Birmingham News article 11/06/66, Alabama Department of Archives and History Public Information Subject Files - General Files, Negro Registration and Voting, SG6975, Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.

 

Chart 1- Registered Black Voters by 1965 in Alabama

County					Number						
 
Dallas					6,000
Perry					2,460
Lowndes			                1,496
Wilcox					3,201

Overall black registration between 1960 and 1965 increased from 66,000 to 113,000.

 

Source: William Warren Rogers, Robert David Ward, Leah Rawls Atkins and Wayne Flynt, Alabama: The History of a Deep South State (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994), p. 565