ARTICLE

Teach This: The Voting Rights Act

Pair an excerpt from ‘One Person, No Vote: How Not All Voters Are Treated Equally’ with a clip from a documentary about Congressman John Lewis to lead a conversation with students about the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Illustration by Mary Kate McDevitt

In learning about current voter suppression tactics, students learn to recognize injustice. But in learning about past pushes for civil rights, they understand what action looks like—and they see how much of a difference a group of committed activists can make in our democracy.

This “Teach This” discussion guide centers an excerpt from Carol Anderson’s One Person, No Vote, adapted for young adult readers by Tonya Bolden. It pairs this text with a section of a video biography about the late Congressman John Lewis.

A note on teaching through a pandemic:

We recognize that not all educators will be sharing physical or virtual space with students this fall. Because of that, we’ve tried to design these discussion guides in ways that can easily work across classes, whether you’re meeting face to face, in a virtual classroom or through another remote learning schedule. We’re so grateful to you and all the educators doing extraordinary work in these extraordinary times.

Here’s how you might start.

1. Check Your Students’ Previous Knowledge

To set the stage for connecting a discussion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) to this current election season, you might begin by asking students to think about voter suppression more broadly. Have them work in groups to brainstorm examples of voter suppression for a few minutes. When they share out, record their responses on a T-chart or timeline, asking students to clarify or discuss whether their example is something that happened in the past or if it’s a form of voter suppression still taking place. During this activity, you might take a moment to introduce unfamiliar students to the work and legacy of Congressman John Lewis.

Students will need to understand how state laws can serve to expand or restrict the vote in order to understand how the VRA worked. If your students don’t already know the role of the states in voting law, you can start the conversation by asking them to look up the voter registration deadlines for two states: North Dakota and South Dakota. Residents of South Dakota planning to vote in the 2020 election will need to register by October 19. North Dakota doesn’t have any voter registration at all. You can explain to students that each state sets its own guidelines—and have a conversation about how those guidelines make it easier or harder to vote.

Finally, any discussion that connects the VRA to the present will need to recognize the impact of Shelby v. Holder. Before you dive into the texts, you might explain that the VRA helped expand voting rights by giving the federal government the power to approve changes in voting laws in states with histories of voter suppression, an oversight power called “preclearance.” You can also explain that the Supreme Court ended preclearance in the 2013 decision for Shelby v. Holder.

2. Watch Together

Have students watch the 9-minute section “March Ahead,” from “Remembering John Lewis.” (The section begins at 24:00, but skipping ahead prompts commercials to autoplay so we recommend queueing the film up before class.) This section of Lewis’s biography introduces the need—and the fight—that led to the passage of the VRA. 

(Please note that this film includes images of police violence against protesters. It also opens with recordings from 1965 in which people repeatedly use the word “Negro,” a word used again near the end of the clip.

  • According to Congressman Lewis, why didn’t President Johnson want to pass a voting rights act in 1964?
  • How did Lewis prepare for the march from Selma to Montgomery? Why?
  • Lewis said that when the marchers came over the bridge, they met an “army of blue.” Who was awaiting the nonviolent protesters?
  • How did the troopers (and deputized citizens) respond to the peaceful marchers?
  • After Lewis was hospitalized, who eventually led the protesters to complete the march from Selma to Montgomery?
  • How did Johnson respond to the marches?
  • How does Lewis say he and Dr. King responded to Johnson’s speech following the violence in Selma?

3. Read Together and Clarify Understanding

Read the excerpt “The Voting Rights Act” from One Person, No Vote: How Not All Voters Are Treated Equally, by Carol Anderson with Tonya Bolden.

If students are working asynchronously, you may want to provide these questions to help them focus their learning as they read. If you’re meeting with students, try having them work individually, in pairs or in a group to answer a few text-dependent questions. For example: 

  • According to Anderson and Bolden, how did civil rights activists continue to fight for equal voting rights? What two violent events happened in Alabama in March of 1965?
  • What are some reasons you think “Bloody Sunday” changed things?
  • How did the idea of preclearance make the Voting Rights Act of 1965 different from the 1957 and 1960 laws?
  • According to author Michael Waldman, after the VRA, whose job was it to protect all citizens’ right to vote? When was the last time this was the case? 
  • Under the Voting Rights Act, which states had to have preclearance to change their laws? Who determined which states would need preclearance? How?

4. Talk Together

The following questions can help students process their understanding of this history and consider how they might connect it to today’s news.

  • Why do you think Anderson and Bolden began their discussion of the VRA of 1965 with laws passed in 1957 and 1960? What do you think they wanted readers to take away? 
  • In the film, Congressman Lewis talks about the importance of hopefulness. Why do you think he believed that was so important to share with viewers? 
  • The excerpt from One Person, No Vote quotes civil rights attorney Hank Sanders, who said that the VRA would function to “complete something this country started 200 years ago...called Democracy.” Why do you think he said that? Do you agree with Sanders? Do you believe that the United States today is a democracy? Why or why not?
  • In 2019, Congressman Lewis led a vote in the U.S. House on a bill (never taken up by the Senate) to restore the preclearance requirement of the VRA. During the bill’s debate, one Alabama Congressman said, “Selma is still now!” What do you think he meant? Do you agree with that idea? Why or why not?
  • If the VRA were still in place today, what—if anything—do you think might be different about the 2020 election? 

For additional discussion guides, recommended lesson plans, PD and more, check out TT’s Future Voters Project.

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