Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Voting Right Act—A Reminder of What it is All About

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law.  Republican co-sponsor in the Senate Everett Dirksen of Illinois joins Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Benjamin Hooks and other Civil Rights leaders at the ceremony.

NoteAs controversy and outraged swirled around yesterday decision by the Supreme Court to gut the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, I was shocked not so much by the obtuse and predictably despicable comments of the usual right wingers on Facebook and others, but by the genuine mystification over what the fuss was all about by a lot of people.  I posted the following blog entry from August 6, 2010 in a discussion thread on a page I belong to.  It set of an outraged string of comments by a Black Republican apologist of the Clarence Thomas mold.  Thomas, as you might have noticed, wrote a separate concurring opinion yesterday that complained that the Court had not gone far enough and should have thrown out the entire Act and that it should have been declared unconstitutional from the beginning.  Nothing in the world that white reactionaries love better than a Black mouthpiece.  So here, slightly re-edited is that old post for your edification.
On August 6, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark National Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a ceremony at the White House attended by leaders of both parties in Congress and Civil Rights leaders including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Benjamin Hooks. 
My generation, which grew up protesting the War in Vietnam, grew to regard Johnson as “the enemy.”  Yet his record on domestic issues was unmatched by any President except Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  His Great Society programs, though far from perfect, were the last great systematic assault on poverty in our history.  And this Texas wheeler-dealer accomplished what northern liberal John F. Kennedy never could—a comprehensive legislative attack on discrimination and the subjugation of Black citizens. 
Perhaps we expected that subsequent Democratic Presidents would take up where Johnson left off without the stain of a fruitless war.  The fact is that whatever their intentions, none of them did. 
The previous year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened doors of public accommodations in response to ongoing campaigns by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), branches of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP), and others.  But the historic pattern of restricting voting by Blacks through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright intimidation that was the hallmark of the Jim Crow era after Southern Whites dismantled the reforms of post-Civil War Reconstruction, remained untouched. 
With new militancy the SCLC and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) turned to campaigns to register voters.  That campaign took a bloody, violent turn in Selma, Alabama earlier that year. Marchers attempting to reach the local Court House to register were attacked and many severely beaten. Black demonstrator, Jimmy Lee Johnson, was killed during a march in near-by Marion City. 
Then James Reeb, a White Unitarian Universalist minister who had responded to a call by Dr. King for support, was beaten to death shortly after arriving in the city.  Johnson instinctively knew that the death of the White minister would galvanize public sentiment and support in the way no number of Black deaths could.
A few days later a massive Selma to Montgomery march was turned back with violence at the Edmund Pettis Bridge—Bloody Sunday.   
On March 15, Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to call for the Voting Rights Act. It was introduced in the Senate on March 18 by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana and Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois. 
A second March to Montgomery, this time under the protection of Federal Authorities, got underway on March 21 and arrived at the Alabama capital for a massive rally on March 25 with the renewed purpose to supporting the Voting Rights Act.  After the rally a white Unitarian Universalist volunteer from Michigan, Viola Liuzzo, was shot and killed while driving a Black demonstrator back to Selma. 
That only stepped up pressure on Congress, where despite a fierce last line of resistance by Southern Democrats, a filibuster was broken and the measure passed the upper chamber on May 26.   The vote was 77-19 with 47 Democrats in favor, 17 opposed and 30 Republicans—who still were proud to be the party of Lincoln—in favor and 2 opposed. 
Delaying tactics and attempts at gutting the measure by amendment slowed action in the House of Representatives but it passed with minor amendments on a vote of 333-85 when Congress reconvened from the Independence Day recess on July 9. 
A Conference Committee reconciliation of the two versions cleared the House on August 3 and the Senate the next day.  Johnson wasted no time scheduling a signing ceremony for August 6, just allowing enough time for major Civil Rights figures including King and Rosa Parks to attend. 
In July 2006 provisions of the Voting Rights Act were renewed by Congress despite an attempt by Republicans to weaken or water it down.  Challenged in court, the Supreme Court declined to overturn the Act in a 2012 case originating from Shelby County Alabama, but warned Congress it would act if it did not amend the enforcement provision.  Congress declined to do so, and in a new case the Court pulled the trigger on that threat on June 25 this year. 
Wasting not a second the Attorney General of Texas demonstrated why the Act was still needed when he announced that onerous voter ID requirements and a racially gerrymander state legislative map which had been blocked by the Act would go into effect immediately.  Missouri made similar moves.  In other states draconian new legislation is being drafted as I type.
Representative John Lewis of Georgia who was beaten on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma all those years ago put it best:  “It is awful, it's a sad day, I never thought that I would see the day when the U.S. Supreme Court would put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965… The question of race is deeply embedded in the American society, and we cannot sweep it under a rug or in some dark corner.”

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately the Civil War never ended. There has always been a southern white class that has founded its identity on the idea that they are better than blacks. If that prop were removed, they would have to face their own failings in industry, technology, education, and constructive management of their own society.