By Nick DAngelo
Passing the Voting Rights Act, which enforced the 15th Amendment, was no small achievement in 1965. Just a year earlier, Congress had approved and President Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act in the midst of a presidential election campaign. The country, Johnson told Martin Luther King Jr., was tired of the civil rights debate. With an escalating war in Vietnam, Johnson believed he had neither the capital nor the votes to push through further legislation. But Civil Rights leaders continued to pressure the former southern segregationist, who had blocked more than his fair share of civil rights bills during his time in Congress.
The incident known as “Bloody Sunday,” where Alabama activists were beaten by police, shocked the public and coerced President Johnson to push for the Voting Rights Act during an address to Congress a week later. The speech reached a surprising climax when the president employed the maxim of the Civil Rights movement, stating, “we shall overcome.” On Aug. 6, the law was signed by President Johnson, having passed by wide margins in both chambers of Congress.
Nearly half a century later, the legislation is once again at the center of national debate as the U.S. Supreme Court begins decisions on whether to strike a key provision. Section 5 requires that the United States Department of Justice or a panel of the District Court, “preclear” any attempt to change “any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting” in any “covered jurisdiction.” The “covered jurisdiction” clause is the focal point as it refers to only nine states—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia—and to dozens of counties and municipalities.
Southern leaders in the new case, Shelby County v. Holder, charged that, “the provision has outlived its purpose of protecting minority voters in an era when a black man has been re-elected to the presidency.”
Supporters of the case believe that these nine southern states have been wrongly discriminated against 50 years after their heinous crimes of racism. During cross-examination Chief Justice Roberts asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?” After first stating it is not, and then sidestepping, Verrilli responded, “I don’t know the answer.”
The Wall Street Journal has charged that the reason liberals are so determined to uphold Section 5 is that discrimination in the South might recur. In response to opponents of change, Justice Justin Kennedy, the court’s well-known middle man, bluntly said, “The Marshall Plan was very good, too, the Morrill Act, the Northwest Ordinance, but times change.” After all, while Congress renewed the legislation in 2006, it used data from 1972 to avoid changing the “covered jurisdictions.” Some argue that through striking down the provision, the Supreme Court may be able to re-write a modern version of Section 5.
Still, there are plenty of reasons for opponents to be wary. It was the Supreme Court who upheld that “separate but equal” was constitutional in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, a ruling that has been epitomized as among the court’s worst. Further, during the 1950s and 1960s the adversaries civil rights leaders faced were no back-woods rednecks. They were keen politicians who used court injunctions, legislative maneuvers and sly tricks to avoid federal intervention in the Jim Crow regime. While the Ross Barnetts, Orval Faubuses and even the Strom Thurmonds are long gone, the threat of political treachery, through mechanisms such as this, should not be forgotten. Opponents charge supporters with “racial amnesia,” stating that alone is a reason to uphold the section.
At some level though, Justice Kennedy is correct: times do change. Justice Breyer posed the question, “What is the standard for when it runs out? Never?” It’s an unrealistic option. Just as southern leaders found different ways to say “never” to the civil enfranchisement of African Americans, Civil Rights activists seem to answer Breyer’s question with “not yet.”
Perhaps the best solution is to expand Section 5 to every state. Gerrymandering, the process of redrawing districts for political purposes, is not just a southern strategy to keep minorities enclosed, but a political tool all over the country.
Can we deny that our own New York congressional districts in the Bronx and New York City are not similarly drawn? As with so many political issues, the debate should keep passions to a minimum, attempting to focus legislation on necessary policy. It’s certainly a challenge, but we shall overcome.