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The Voting Rights Act of 1965, “an act to enforce the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” prohibited states from denying any person from exercising his or her right to vote on the basis of race or skin color. Specifically, the act prohibited states from instituting voting requirements such as poll taxes and literacy tests, which had been previously used by Southern states to prevent African-Americans from voting. The act also provided that those states which had previously employed voting requirements would be subject to oversight from the Department of Justice. In order to make any changes to the voting process, these states would first have to obtain permission from the Attorney General.
After the election of President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, many civil rights groups called upon the President and Congress to pass legislation to protect the rights that had been guaranteed to African-Americans by the 15th Amendment. Growing dissatisfaction over Southern discrimination resulted in demonstrations such as the Selma to Montgomery march. In an address to both the House and the Senate, President Johnson called upon Congress to pass a strong voting rights bill.
Senator Dole supported both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although many of his constituents were vehemently opposed to both of these bills, Dole considers them to be two of the most important votes of his political career.
Dole went on to co-sponsor the Voting Rights Act extension of 1982. These amendments provided a 25-year renewal of the original legislations and strengthened prohibitions against voting discrimination based on race.
“I would make a distinction in the fact that this has happened over my lifetime and I have watched the change taking place because I have been in Congress ever since the first time Dr. King demonstrated his effectiveness in pointing out discrimination and injustice in this country. I did not know Columbus and I did not know Franklin D. Roosevelt. When you have seen the dramatic change that has happened all across this land and other lands because of one man, because of his dream and his vision and his diligence and his commitment; that really, as I see it, is what the debate is all about today.” – Senator Dole
As early as 1970, Senator Dole supported efforts for the creation of a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. He signed on as a co-sponsor in 1983 to S. 400, “a bill to designate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Junior, a legal public holiday.” Debate in the Senate became heated as some Republican opponents argued strongly against the bill and at one point enacted a filibuster against the legislation. Under a motion for cloture, and two days of intense debate, the legislation passed the Senate with a vote of 78 to 22.