Chicago Defender News Literacy Curriculum Lesson 3 - Voter Rights Act of 1965

CNL News Lesson

Lesson Outline

Note:  Parts of this lesson may require a subscription to an online database of historial newspapers, including the Chicago Defender. Your local library, such as the Chicago Public Library may offer online access to these articles with the use of your library card number. 

Written by:  

Myiti Sengstacke, African American Studies Instructor
City Colleges of Chicago, Kennedy-King College

Michelle R. Yisrael, Reading, English & Literature
City Colleges of Chicago, Kennedy-King College

“Voter education is just as important as voter registration”

~1966 quote Chicago Defender - Civil Rights Attorney Wiley Branton Sr.


This lesson focuses on the 1965 law that aimed to ensure that African Americans would no longer be denied their right to vote. Coming up to the present, students read Chicago Defender news coverage that show the potential effects of efforts to curtail voting rights. In addition, students examine attempts in Illinois specifically to limit voter participation and how to counter those efforts, or the success of efforts in their community to increase voter registration and participation.

Essential Questions:  

  • What was the Chicago Defender’s role in the voting rights act of 1965?
  • Did the evidence presented to Congress in 1965 support the position that Federal Government action was necessary to ensure African Americans' right to vote?


Students will be able to…

  • To investigate the conditions, such as Jim Crow laws and other segregation policies, under which African Americans lived experienced from 1875 to 1965.
  • To analyze the impact of the 1965 voting rights march.
  • To apply information gained from primary documents (including the Chicago Defender) and class activities in understanding the strategies used by African Americans in pursuing the right to vote, and to evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies.

Terms to be incorporated:

  • Alerts
  • Diverts
  • Connects
  • Franchise - the right to vote
  • disenfranchisement - the act of depriving someone of the right to vote
  • abridge -  to deprive; to limit
  • voter registration - an action taken by an eligible voter to have her voting qualification verified (usually at the county level) so that he can vote in elections

Introducing the Lesson:

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Why did there need to be a voting rights act in 1965?

Because states—particularly Southern states—had found ways to get around the 15th Amendment, which had guaranteed African American men the right to vote. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy and civics tests, as well as violence, made it virtually impossible for many black Americans to exercise their right to vote. Civil rights activists had challenged these restrictions in court cases, but in 1965, Congress determined that these case-by-case lawsuits were ineffective.

The key points of the voting rights act of 1965:

  • No voting qualification, prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure shall be imposed … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.
  • The court will appoint federal examiners to enforce the guarantees of the 15th Amendment.
  • No “test” (e.g., literacy or civics) or “device” (e.g., grandfather clause) may be used as prerequisites for voting.
  • States that require special attention are those that most severely restricted voting rights before this 1965 law.
  • The Voting Rights Act identified those states as those that used any “test or device” that limited voting based on race or color on November 1, 1964; or where less than 50 percent of people of voting age were registered to vote on November 1, 1964.
  • Whenever one of the states identified above wants to change voter qualifications or voting procedures, it needs court approval to do so.
  • Federal examiners will oversee voter registration in the states identified above.
  • Federal examiners may, at the request of the attorney general, observe at voting sites and vote-counting sites.
  • Poll taxes are illegal.

Discussion Questions:

  • Compare the language used in the voting rights act with its description in newspapers of the day. 
  • Why was the Voting Rights Act necessary? What effect has it had?
  • Why have some people challenged the Voting Rights Act in recent years?
  • How are voting rights threatened today? How can we protect those rights?

Articles to use with this lesson:   


Videos to link the lesson:


Write an Essay:

Choose one topic. Construct  a 3-part parallel thesis statement, then write a 5-paragraph  essay supporting the thesis statement.  

  • What role has the black press played in securing voting rights for African Americans?
  • What role has the federal government played in securing those rights?
  • Evaluate how important each group’s role was in expanding voting rights to include African Americans.

Peer Review & Collaboration: Students will select groups of 3-5 students who chose the same essay topic,  to read and discuss the essay.  

Oral presentation: Create a PowerPoint or Prezi Presentation about your topic and present your small group collaborative discussion to the whole group.