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Defeating Strom
The Year We Saved The Voting Rights Act

Charleston City Paper
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
May 14, 2014

By the fall of 1980, Strom Thurmond's opposition to the 1965 Voting Rights Act was well-documented and well-known. He had fiercely fought against it 15 years before, saying its passage would "destroy the provisions of the Constitution [and lead to] a totalitarian state in which there will be despotism and tyranny." U.S. Sen. Thurmond lost that argument badly that year, with the Act passing the Senate on a 77-19 roll call vote. It was later passed by the House and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. However, 15 years later Thurmond renewed his effort to kill the law.

By 1980 both the nation and the Senate had changed radically. Republicans had gained control of the Senate in the Reagan landslide election that November, and Thurmond was set to take up the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which had jurisdiction over the Voting Rights Act. More importantly, the act's critical Section 5 "pre-clearance" provisions were set to expire in 1982. These provisions were the heart of the Voting Rights Act, and they required states covered by the law — mostly those in the Deep South — to ask for U.S. Justice Department approval before changing election laws. With the Senate in Republican hands and a conservative Republican President Reagan presumably waiting with a veto pen in hand, Thurmond's road to victory seemed clear and open.

A year and a half after Thurmond declared war on the Voting Rights Act, the Senate voted 85-8 to renew it and the Section 5 provisions, joining the House of Representatives. Thurmond was even one of the 85 aye votes in the Senate. After that, President Reagan signed it into law.

What forced Thurmond to change his position was partially the work of a small group of South Carolina black rights activists who took up the battle and created a statewide movement to save the Voting Rights Act. They were joined by thousands of black South Carolinians who had only recently acquired full voting rights. Together they defeated Thurmond in his own state. [To Full Article]