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Voter Registration Numbers: 1964 and Now

In October 1972, a piece John Lewis and Archie E. Allen wrote in The Notre Dame Law Review, titled “Black Voter Registration Efforts in the South,” found that while white opposition to Black political participation had increased in intensity in the mid-1950s, a new dimension was added to the Black struggle for the right to vote.

Although the period of most severe reaction and demagoguery had passed, violence and intimidation were still political factors in the 1950s. One author duo attributes the rise of racial tensions and subsequent slowdown of Black voter registration to reactionary aftermath created in the South by the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.” As they describe it, “Racial tensions grew alarmingly, and white resistance to Negro advancement stiffened in every realm, including the political. Several states adopted new and more demanding voter requirements, and others applied old requirements more strictly.”

Weeks before the presidential election of 1964, African Americans and their advocates were working toward a record turnout. The NAACP announced that it had registered 5.5 million Black voters in 34 states and the District of Columbia as of Oct. 1 and estimated that the Black electorate could number as many as 12 million.

In the end, that was about how many Blacks turned out, according to census data compiled after the fact: Turnout reached 58.5 percent for an estimated Black population of 20.7 million. Data on voting by race isn’t available for years before 1964, but the NAACP estimated at the time that no more than 5 million African Americans voted in the presidential election of 1960.

Black voters wouldn’t go to the polls at such levels again until President Obama’s first election in 2008, when 60.8 percent of them voted. In 2012, 62 percent turned out for Mr. Obama’s reelection.

What’s most impressive about the 1964 result, though, is that it happened at a time when some Southern states still viciously repressed Blacks’ attempts to vote. That wouldn’t begin to end until the following year, when the Voting Rights Act passed with the strong support of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who owed much of his reelection margin to that enormous Black turnout.

In fact, Black turnout outside the South hit 72 percent in 1964, a level it has not reached since. In the South, Black turnout was just 44 percent.

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