After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments to the United States Constitution were ratified: the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, prohibits slavery, while the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, grants citizenship to all people “born or naturalized in the United States” and includes the due process and equal protection clauses. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified on February 3, 1870, provides that "[t]he right of U.S. citizens 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." Each of these amendments also contains an enforcement clause that grants Congress the power to enforce their provisions through legislation.
To enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress passed the Enforcement Act of 1870, which made it a crime for public officers and private persons to obstruct an individual's voting rights. Congress amended the statute with first Enforcement Act of 1871 to provide for federal supervision of the electoral process, including voter registration. After Reconstruction ended in the later 1870s, enforcement of these laws became erratic, and in 1894, Congress repealed most of their provisions.
Southern states sought to maintain the disenfranchisement of racial minorities during and after Reconstruction. From 1868 to 1888, the principal techniques the states used to suppress the African American vote were violence and massive election fraud. From 1888 to 1908, Southern states legalized disenfranchisement by enacting Jim Crow laws; several states amended their state constitutions and passed legislation to impose literacy tests, poll taxes, property ownership qualifications, "good character" tests, requirements that voter registration applicants "interpret" a particular document, and grandfather clauses that allowed otherwise disqualified voters to vote if their grandfathers voted (excluding many African Americans whose grandfathers had been slaves). Many of these provisions initially were upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in early litigation from 1875 (United States v. Cruikshank) through 1904. During the early 20th century, the Supreme Court began to find such provisions unconstitutional in litigation of cases brought by African Americans and poor whites. States reacted rapidly in devising new legislation to continue disfranchisement of most blacks and many poor whites. Although there were numerous court cases brought to the Supreme Court, through the 1960s, Southern states effectively disfranchised most African Americans.
Beginning in the 1950s, the American Civil Rights Movement escalated pressure on the federal government to protect the voting rights of racial minorities. In 1957, Congress passed the first legislation since Reconstruction designed to protect voting rights: the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Further protections were enacted in the Civil Rights Act of 1960. Together, these Acts authorized the Department of Justice to sue in federal court on behalf of citizens who were denied the right to vote due to their race. However, strict legal standards made it difficult for the Department to successfully pursue litigation. For example, to succeed in a lawsuit against a state that maintained a literacy test, the Department needed to prove that the denied voter registration applications of racial minorities were comparable to the accepted voter registration applications of whites. To make this showing, the Department needed to research voter registration applications county-by-county, comparing thousands of applications in a process that could take thousands of hours to complete. The Department's efforts were further hampered by resistance from local election officials, who "lost" records, purged racial minorities from voter rollers shortly after their registration, and resigned to vitiate injunctions against them and to leave registrar positions vacant so that voter registration ceased. Moreover, several federal district court judges resisted efforts to enfranchise racial minorities, requiring lawsuits to be appealed repeatedly before the courts granted relief. Thus, despite the Department filing 71 cases between 1957 and 1964, black voter registration in the South changed only marginally.:514
In 1964, Congress responded to rampant discrimination against African Americans in public accommodations and government services by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, despite lobbying from civil rights leaders, the Act did not contain a comprehensive remedy for discrimination in voting.:254 Following the 1964 elections, civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) banded together to push for the passage of stronger federal legislation that would protect the voting rights of racial minorities despite the defiance of local officials. Their efforts culminated in voting rights protests in Alabama, particularly Selma, where police violently resisted efforts of African Americans to register to vote. James Forman of SNCC explained that in Selma, "Our strategy, as usual, was to force the U.S. government to intervene in case there were arrests—and if they did not intervene, that inaction would once again prove the government was not on our side and thus intensify the development of a mass consciousness among blacks. Our slogan for this drive was 'One Man, One Vote.'":255
In February 1965 in Marion, Alabama, state troopers violently broke up a nighttime voting-rights march that resulted in the death of young protester Jimmie Lee Jackson.:265 A few weeks later, SCLC and SNCC began the Selma to Montgomery marches in which citizens of Selma marched to Alabama's capital, Montgomery, to present Governor George Wallace with their grievances. On the first of these marches, the demonstrators were stopped by state and local police on horseback at the Edmund Pettis Bridge outside of Selma. The police shot tear gas into the crowd and trampled protesters. The scene, later known as "Bloody Sunday", was captured by television cameras and prompted national outrage.:515