The Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Title I: Who Gets to Vote?

Primary sources can help students explore just how controversial voting rights were in the century preceding the Act.

Editor's note: This post is the second in a series of blogs related to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The series was authored by the educational staff of the Library of Congress and first published on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog. For more on the educational use of Library of Congress primary sources, visit

We’re publishing a series of blog posts that look at different facets of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and bring forward primary source items that help students engage with different issues addressed by the Act. Today we begin with a close look at Title I–Voting Rights.

Title I calls for any qualifications for voter registration to be applied equally to all, prohibits a voter from being rejected for non-material errors on an application, and outlines specific requirements for literacy tests. This Title is especially significant because it addresses barriers to voter registration that plagued the nation beginning with the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, which prohibits states from depriving any male inhabitant over the age of 21 of the right to vote so long as he has not participated in a rebellion or other crime.

Primary sources can help students explore just how controversial voting rights were in the century preceding the Act. For example, voting rights were a hot issue in 1900-1901 because some southern states were attempting to pass state constitutional amendments revoking the rights of African Americans to vote. As that debate raged in the public sphere, Alexander Graham Bell discussed voting rights for women and African Americans in a letter to his wife, dated March 28, 1901. Compare his views to those in an article from a North Carolina newspaper and this one from an Indiana paper. This newspaper article from 1901 summarizes the history of voting rights laws up to that time.

The Indianapolis Journal, August 25, 1901

Help students to look deeper:

  • Ask them to what extent Bell’s views reflect his time period or to what extent he was a progressive thinker. Ask “What makes you say that?” to help them cite evidence for their position.
  • Use this as an opportunity to investigate other attitudes toward universal voting rights prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • Discuss the differences in attitudes shown in the North Carolina paper versus the Indiana paper.
  • Use newspapers to investigate current voting rights legislation.

To the colored men of voting age in the southern states.

This pamphlet, published early in the 1900s in Philadelphia, outlines the laws in each southern state pertaining to voter registration. Read the requirements for each state, or assign groups of students to study the requirements for a particular state and present their findings to the class.

  • Discuss the implications of the laws in each state.  To what extent do the requirements exclude people based on race, education, and/or socio-economic status? Ask “What makes you say that?” to help students cite evidence for their position.
  • The pamphlet emphasizes the importance of voting as “an expression of your choice of the officers who shall be placed in control of your nearest and dearest interests.” What interests are “nearest and dearest” to students?  Would they protest to ensure the right to have a say in those interests?

This series of blog posts is anchored by the web-based Civil Rights History Project and the exhibition, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom”. The exhibition is made possible by a generous grant from Newman’s Own Foundation and with additional support from HISTORY®.

Newland is the Library of Congress 2013-14 Teacher in Residence.

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