As the nation awaits results in what has turned out to be a historic election in a historic year, we look back to the elections after the Voting Rights Act. Today marks the conclusion of a fraught political season like no other, with the denouement coming amid deep divisions over the future of the country and a coronavirus pandemic. It also has come in the wake of a number of police killings, which sparked tremendous unrest and demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality.

Voters make their way in and out of the booths during the 1966 Alabama Democratic Gubernatorial Elections. For many this was their first time ever being able to vote. 

Near Atlanta last month, at the Gallery at South DeKalb in Decatur, Norman Robinson III stood in a line that snaked for more than a half-mile. Still, he said, “it’s an awesome thing.” “My parents were jailed in college during the 1960s for exercising their rights to vote,” said Dr. Robinson, an educator specializing in math, science and technology. “This is in my blood to make sure I honor and continue their fight for voices to be heard.”

African-American voters, able to vote for the first time in rural Peachtree, Wilcox County, Ala., line up in front of a polling station at The Sugar Shack, a local general store. After the passage of the federal voting rights law in 1965, there were almost twice as many Black voters than whites.

It wasn’t all that long ago — just 55 years — when Black Americans could not easily vote. The Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, banned the use of literacy tests and challenged the use of poll taxes, among other hindrances that had made it difficult to register.

It rained all day on Feb. 17, 1965. But that did not dampen the spirits of Black residents of Selma, Ala., determined to register to vote. Nearly 1,000 Black people signed up that day to take the voter registration test.

Today, as the nation awaits results in what has turned out to be a historic election in a historic year, we look back at the Black Americans who stood in the rain and the scorching Southern sun to cast their very first ballots and, ultimately, to finally have their voices heard.