Black Empowerment and Whites’ Counter-Mobilization: The Effect of the Voting Rights Act

The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) dismantled the institutional barriers that had suppressed political participation of African Americans in the U.S. South since the end of Reconstruction. Did it also win hearts and minds in the racially conservative South? In this paper, we study this question using newly collected data on county-level voter registration rates by race. Exploiting variation induced by a special provision of the VRA (“coverage”), we find that covered counties with higher shares of African Americans experienced a larger increase in Black and white registration rates. White counter-mobilization was concentrated in counties where Black empowerment was more likely to represent a political threat to the white majority, and was accompanied by higher hostility against African Americans, as observed in local newspapers. Additional analysis shows that the negative effects of the VRA on whites’ racial attitudes persisted over time, and are still evident today.