On Aug. 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the most comprehensive voting rights legislation in 95 years. Now extension of critical provisions of the act, designed to increase voting by blacks, is up for renewal in an atmosphere in which racial issues are again prominent.
On June 29, President Reagan urged the NAACP convention at Denver to throw off the "bondage" of federal paternalism and to rely on the free enterprise system.
The current federal budget slashes, designed to save some $35 billion, would sharply reduce funds for the nation's poor, including removal of some 660,000 households, or around 17 percent of recipients, from Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
The federally funded US Commission on Civil Rights, in a 130-page critique of the pending budget cuts, argues that they particularly hit hard on low-income black families. The commission expresses "grave concern that the federal government is retreatng from its historic and constitutional civil rights obligations."
In 1965, the United States witnessed racial conflicts, including riots in Northern cities; the campaign of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., to dramatize bars on black voting; and a televised address before an extraordinary joint session of Congress by President Johnson supporting the new act. Statistics showed that because of literacy tests and other requirements only 5.2 percent of the total black population in Mississippi were registered to vote.
After an emotional debate, the House in August 1965 approved the Voting Rights Act, 328 to 74, and the Senate 79 to 18. The most controversial feature was a new registration procedure. It said, in effect, that federal registration supersedes state or county reistration if voter activity falls below certain specified levels, thereby indicating racial discrimination. Using the triggering mechanism (the percentage of minority voters registered to total minority population) attention was directed against six Southern states: Alabama , Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, plus Alaska, 28 counties in North Carolina, three counties in Arizona, and one county in Idaho.
Black civil-rights activists agree there have been big improvements under the law. In Mississippi, black registration has increased 11 times, by one estimate , and the number of elected black officials in the South as a whole has risen from 100 to 2,400. However, a big gap still exists, said reports to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention.
The convention was the scene of several sarcastic references to Mr. Reagan's appeal for blacks to reject the aid of federal bureaucracy on the economic front. To some, the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the case of Bakke v. the University of California at Davis medical school (1978) showed how far blacks have yet to go to achieve economic equality. Justice Marshall wrote:
"A Negro child today has a life expectancy which is shorter by more than five years than that of a white child. The Negro child's mother is over three times more likely to die of complications in childbirth, and the Negro mortality rate is nearly twice that for whites." By one estimate black teen-age unemployment is four times that of whites.
Reagan had asked the Justice Department for a full-scale review of the merits of extending the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Civil-rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson has met here for an hour and a half with Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina who is against extending the triggering provisions which otherwise will expire next year. The meeting was amicable, it was said. Hear ings by a subcommittee start shortly.