Our Voices

As election day nears, 5 things to know about the Voting Rights Act

At the end of 1962, President John F. Kennedy asked his brother, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to compile a report on the Civil Rights enforcement activities of the Justice Department over the previous year. In this report, submitted on January 24, 1963, Robert Kennedy notes “progress” overall, but reminds the President that difficult race problems remain “not only in the South . . . but throughout the country.”

“The most significant civil rights problem is voting,” Kennedy wrote in his 1962 report. “Each citizen’s right to vote is fundamental to all the other rights of citizenship.”

The landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in three short years. Here are five things to know about its origins and where it stands today.

1. Together with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act ended many legal forms of white supremacy though racial discrimination continues to be embedded in American society – both in RFK’s time as well as today.

2. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, of which the late Congressman and RFK Human Rights supporter John Lewis served as a chairman, was central to organizing Black communities to advocate for voting rights and sharing the stories of the violence and discrimination they suffered.

RFK got to know Lewis and others as he listened to students who endured arrests and beatings in their efforts to desegregate Cambridge, Maryland. Lewis later recalled that, during a break in the meetings, Kennedy told him: “John, now I understand. The young people—the students—have educated me. You have changed me.”

3. In recent years, voting protections assured under the 1965 Voting Rights Act have been eroded by the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in 2022, at least seven states enacted 10 laws that make voting more difficult—of these, five laws in five states are in place for the midterms. Overall, at least 405 restrict­ive voting bills have been proposed in 39 state legis­latures.

4. Some of the highest-profile cases in front of the Supreme Court right now are redistricting cases stemming from congressional maps proposed by GOP-led legislatures in Alabama and Louisiana, which are accused of violating the Voting Rights Act by diluting Black voters’ strength at the polls.

5. Five decades after Robert F. Kennedy’s death, the organization founded to carry out his ideals of equity and social justice continues to celebrate and highlight the work of truth-tellers in the arena of voting rights.

“For as long as Americans have had the right to vote, we’ve had enemies of democracy working to restrict, suppress, and violate the will of the people, particularly those from poor and underrepresented communities,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, noting underlying problems within our political system do not happen in a vacuum.“Robert F. Kennedy dedicated his life to the protection of our freedoms,” 2021 Ripple of Hope Laureate Stacey Abrams said. “He fought for equality for all people, regardless of color or background, and he lifted up their causes. …Access to the right to vote is essential to achieving racial and social justice, and pursuit of fairness, equity, and opportunity must be a constant mission.”