Free at Last to Vote
The Alabama Origins of the 1965 Voting Rights Act
Brian K. Landsberg
Although the heroism of last century's freedom marches will long be credited for ending racial discrimination, civil rights legislation owes much to work done more quietly in the district courtrooms of the South. This book expands our understanding of how the Voting Rights Act came about by focusing on several key cases in Alabama that paved the way for this landmark legislation.
Brian Landsberg—himself a participant in many of these trials—argues that Department of Justice litigation contributed significantly to the content of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. His close analysis of these trials shows how they helped pave the way for the dramatic expansion of federal power in combating racist enforcement of voting laws. Focusing on three out of the seventy voting rights cases filed between 1957 and 1965, he reveals how the DOJ, newly armed with authority to bring civil suits against voting discrimination, aggressively pursued its efforts to enforce the Reconstruction Amendments.
“One of the strengths of this book is Landsberg’s inclusion of his first-hand experiences, while also providing a glimpse of the social activism on the ground.”
—Journal of African American History
“Landsberg’s book combines legal, social, and oral history, personal memoir, and institutional analysis regarding the relationship between litigation and the national legislative process. It is a forceful contribution to understanding the relationship between lawyers and social change in accounting for the remarkable success of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
—Law and History ReviewSee all reviews...
“Landsberg fills in missing pieces of the grand narrative [of the civil rights movement], providing the legal back story for the events of that fateful spring [of 1965]. Using a combination of memoir, case analysis, and movement history, his multilayered narrative reminds us of the role the federal legal system played in changing the South and the importance of who holds positions within bureaucracies. He tells an important story about the civil rights movement that is relevant today as the country witnesses state efforts to restrict the right to vote using measures that look all too familiar to students of Alabama history. . . . An important contribution to civil rights history. ”
—The Alabama Review
“Skillful weaving of a participant’s memoir with a wider argument about the significance of the topic. . . . Historians without legal training will find it an accessible primer for why the voting rights act took the form it did. A clear and lively exposition of the legal issues of this landmark act is always useful for classroom instructors.”
“Landsberg writes from a unique perspective. . . . In the 1960s he was one of the lawyers with the civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice who worked on voting rights litigation in Alabama. Thus, he offers the assessment of a person who was both inside the department and inside the courtroom. . . . He relates in careful and moving detail some of the stories of individuals who had waited decades to vote. These stories enrich the narrative and add the human touch that may not always be found in the lawyer's professional conduct and role. . . . A valuable contribution to the growing literature on the civil rights movement, but moreover, it provides both an inside and an insightful view into the world of civil rights lawyers in the 1960s in the Deep South.”
—Journal of Southern History
“The richness of Landsberg’s case studies is a special reward. He tells us about the lawyers who brought the cases, the judges who heard the evidence, the registrars who were the chief agents of discrimination, and the often-courageous African American witnesses whose testimony was frequently critical to the outcome. . . . Although Landsberg's account of the adoption of the Voting Rights Act follows the interpretation of previous scholars such as David Garrow and Steven F. Lawson, he provides the most detailed narrative of how the experience of the litigators shaped each provision of the bill as it evolved.”
—Journal of American History
“Helps clarify the federal government’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement by demonstrating that the provisions of the Voting Rights Act sprang directly from the voting-rights lawsuits that the Department of Justice litigated. At the same time, it avoids replicating the shortcomings of earlier studies of the government’s involvement in the movement, which tended to dismiss the pivotal role that local black people and civil rights organizations played. As a result, this book has a great deal to offer legal scholars and social historians who study the civil rights struggle.”
—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
“Clear and often engagingly written, [this book] puts flesh on the conventional statement that the 1965 Act sought to overcome southern intransigence, and it offers the most complete account yet published of the shaping of provisions of the legislation. . . . Landsberg’s book is not the final word on the subject of the origins of all of the provisions of the VRA, but it is an important start. ”
—Law and Politics Book Review "In short, this is a rich and satisfying book—part legal history, part memoir, part historical-institutional analysis, and part primer on the ironies of public policy. . . . . There is, to begin with, the sheer pleasure of following, step by step, the legal dramas that form the heart of this book. Brian Landsberg began his career just out of law school at the Civil Rights Division, trying to make these statutes work in three Alabama counties. His clear memory, valuable personal papers, access to rare legal and governmental records, and assiduous research allow him to paint a compelling triptych of federal voting rights lawsuits in three counties, each in three federal districts with strikingly different judges. . . . " —
“Landsberg’s memoir and history of the Justice Department’s voting litigation in Elmore, Perry, and Sumter Counties is a richly valuable addition to our understanding of the origins of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
—David J. Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
“Before Martin Luther King’s celebrated campaign for voting rights in Selma in 1965, the Department of Justice had more quietly paved the way for federal legislation to enfranchise African Americans in the South. Landsberg’s book uncovers an important dimension behind that pioneering legislation.”
—Steven F. Lawson, author of Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom MovementSee fewer reviews...
These cases in Elmore, Sumter, and Perry counties helped to expose the chasm between the objectives of the Fifteenth Amendment and the practices of southern voter registrars—and the equally deep chasm between practices in the Deep South and those in the rest of the country—by showing that a simple requirement of racial neutrality wasn't enough to guard against discrimination. The VRA adopted many of the stringent remedies that emerged from these trials, including the appointment of federal officials to observe elections and maintain lists of eligible voters and the need for federal approval for changes in local voting procedures.
Landsberg highlights a long-neglected but vitally important chapter in the history of the civil rights movement and puts a human face on the struggle for the right to vote, enhancing our understanding of the efforts blacks made to register, the doubts of even moderate whites, and the role of federal agents in protecting voter rights. His study is especially welcome in light of the controversy surrounding the VRA's recent renewal in 2006, which caught glimpses of the pre-VRA South, and current concerns over new and emerging forms of disenfranchisement.