John Amis  /  AP
A historical photo of a whites-only voting line is part of the exhibit at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. At left workers hang posters that are part of the exhibit.
updated 8/5/2005 12:56:40 PM ET 2005-08-05T16:56:40

From a bloody attack on an Alabama bridge to a bill-signing ceremony in the White House, a new exhibit traces the history of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Organizers of the free exhibit, at the Martin Luther King Jr. historic site, say they hope to show both the difficult struggle to pass the law and the lasting effects it has had.

“What we’re really hoping people come out with is not just that it was a struggle, but that overall, it was a successful struggle,” said Dean Rowley, co-curator of the exhibit, “Of Ballots Uncast: The African American Struggle for the Right to Vote.”

Back to Bloody Sunday
The act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965, officially guaranteed the right to vote to every American, regardless of race. Its basic tenets are permanent, but certain provisions must be renewed by Congress by 2007.

At the exhibit, visitors enter by way of a replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, site of the “Bloody Sunday” attack in March 1965. Alabama state troopers stopped civil rights marchers on the bridge, turning them back using nightsticks and tear gas.

“It was really the Bloody Sunday march that got the nation’s attention and raised interest in getting the Voting Rights Act passed,” Rowley said. “People didn’t want to be associated with something so oppressive.”

The exhibit’s displays include Johnson’s copy of his speech to Congress pushing the act, complete with his handwritten changes, and an ink pen Johnson used to sign the bill into law.

'Jelly bean test'
It also chronicles both legal and illegal means used to keep blacks away from the polls before the act passed.

There’s an authentic Ku Klux Klan uniform and an interactive recreation of the “jelly bean test,” a technique used by some Jim Crow-era registrars to prevent blacks from voting. The registrar would ask voters to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar.

“The tendency was for white voters to somehow get it right and for black voters to get it wrong,” Rowley said.

A reception for the exhibit featured an address by U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who was injured during the “Bloody Sunday” attack and is leading the effort in Congress to reauthorize the act.

One part set to expire requires governments with a history of racial discrimination to get approval from the federal government before changing their voting laws or district lines. The provision affects most states in the South, and parts of other states including New York and California.

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Photos: The fight for the right to vote

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  1. Civil rights activists march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, on their way to Montgomery, the state capital. They are demanding voter registration rights for blacks, who are discouraged and many times threatened with violence if they try to vote, particularly in small towns in the South. (Flip Schulke / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Tear gas fills the air as state troopers, on orders from Gov. George Wallace, break up the march. March 7, 1965, becomes known as Bloody Sunday after state troopers assault the marchers with clubs and whips. A shocked nation watches the police brutality on television and demands that Washington intervene and protect voter registration rights for blacks. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Alabama state troopers beat marchers with nightsticks in Selma on March 7, 1965. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Wilson Baker, left, Selma's public safety director, and Mayor Joe Smitherman, right, tell reporters why they are banning a march to the courthouse, as protesters gather in a nearby church on March 10, 1965. Smitherman said tensions were too high to permit the eight-block march. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Voting rights activists clasp hands at a rally before starting the third and final march from Selma to Montgomery, on March 21, 1965. (Flip Schulke / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Marchers cross the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 21, 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the start of a five-day, 50-mile march to the state Capitol in Montgomery. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they set off from Selma on March 21, 1965. King is fourth from right, and Dr. Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, is third from right. They are wearing leis given to them by a Hawaiian group. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A soldier stands guard in Selma on March 21, 1965, on orders from President Johnson to protect the marchers. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965. Widely considered the most effective civil rights legislation ever in the United States, the law bans discriminatory tactics such as literacy tests aimed at preventing blacks from voting. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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