Note—This year we will forego our usual contemplation of the horrors of the first atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima to take note of another anniversary.
The anniversary of the Voting Rights Act generates more interest than usual this year because the gains once thought secure are under relentless attack Republican attack. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named in honor of the former Civil Rights champion and long-time member of the House of Representative which aims to reverse attacks on voting rights made in state after state under GOP control is stalled in the Senate under threat of a filibuster and with so-called moderate Democrats refusing to provide the votes necessary for Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie in the evenly divided body.
This week hundreds of protestors heeding the call of Rev. William Barber’s Moral Mondays and new Poor Peoples Campaign were arrested at the Capitol in Washington D.C. demanding an end to the filibuster, enactment of the Lewis Voting Rights Act, and other critical fairness and parity reforms. In Texas, which is trying to pass some of the most draconian voter suppression bill in the country, there was a four-day Georgetown to Washington March involving thousands including Transportation Secretary and former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke. State and local marches and events are being held nation-wide.
Under Section 5 of the landmark 1965 civil rights law, jurisdictions with a history of discrimination needed to seek pre-approval of changes in voting rules that could affect minorities. It blocked discrimination before it occurred. In Shelby County V. Holder last year the Trump packed Supreme Court invalidated Section 4—which laid out criteria for identifying states and localities covered by Section 5—claiming that current conditions require a new coverage formula. That left Section 5 intact but unenforceable. The conservative majority on the court claimed that Congress could easily adopt a new formula and restore enforcement, knowing full well that with the House of Representatives then in the iron grip of reactionary Republican majorities and control of the Senate that no remedy would be enacted.
Since then, attacks on voting rights have intensified across the country—and not just in the old Deep South. Republican Legislatures and Governors have enacted waves of legislation aimed at curbing or discouraging voting by minorities and any groups of voters suspected of possible Democratic tendencies. In the name of fighting a virtually nonexistent form of voter fraud—registration and voting by non-citizens misrepresenting their status—burdensome proof of identity legislation, including very limited numbers of approved identification documents and fees and charges for attaining those documents. Places where applicants can obtain documents have been reduced requiring burdensome travel and their hours of operation restricted. Students have been barred from registering where they attend college, even if they life there year round. Early voting periods have been reduced and restricted. Polling places have been eliminated and consolidated in minority areas to guarantee long and discouraging lines. It seems like new and creative ways to curb registration or discourage voting are introduced every year, churned out by as model legislation by some rightwing think tank and spreading from Red State to Red State like a virus.
Many, maybe even most, of these restrictions eventually get struck down in the courts, but not before having their desired effect for an election cycle or two. With Section 4 in place, many of these changes would have been stopped by Federal review before they were even put in place.
Meanwhile there is a growing rank-and-file movement to reclaim voting rights in the same way as they were first won at bitter cost to begin with—with street protests and civil disobedience. The NAACP’s Moral Monday movement in South Carolina is a model for a new activism and a movement that has been called the Selma of the 21st Century.
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.