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Our Past Still Speaks: Re-examining the Voting Rights Act

President Lyndon Johnson discusses the Voting Rights Act with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, the year it was signed into law. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Let me begin this discussion of the landmark Voting Rights Act and its less-than-secure future with a couple of propositions, the way a geometry problem starts with givens:

  • In the century after the Civil War, black political aspirations were thwarted and stunted through a variety of techniques ranging from murderous criminality to white-collar dirty tricks.
  • In the 1960s, minority political representation was a faint echo of minority population numbers, meaning a hundred years of suppression had worked.
  • 1960s-era civil rights legislation assumed that white Americans were less likely to vote for a black or Latino candidate for local and federal office — even a nominee of their own party — than they were for a white nominee, so minority- heavy districts needed to be mapped to insure elected representation.
  • While the United States had plenty to live down in its history of race relations, the most severe, systematic and consistent trampling of minority rights were found in many of the states of the Confederacy.

In those four unremarkable propositions lived much of the power of the Voting Rights Act. When President Johnson spoke to a joint session of congress after the passage of the Act, he reminded his audience, “This Act flows from a clear and simple wrong. The only purpose of this Act is to right that wrong.” Among those supporting the law it was assumed that more black representation was a goal, that more was better than less, and that the states covered in the law were places that could not be trusted to do the right things themselves, that is, without federal oversight.

The decades that followed meant that the ebb and flow of local lawmaking, boundary drawing and elections would be different in the states covered by the Voting Rights Act. With the life and death struggles of the civil rights movement still fresh in American memory, people well understood what Washington was overseeing, even if they could not always bring themselves to drop the pose of disingenuousness that came with all the talk of “tradition” and “way of life.”

The Voting Rights Act tore down the rotten framework of literacy and civics tests, tricky voter qualification, lines that split minority neighborhoods into five different districts, at-large elections to dilute minority voting power, refusal to supply bilingual voting materials, and all the other techniques that kept minority voters out of polling booths and out of power.

In his historic address President Johnson told congress that the histories of Americans and black Americans had flowed “through the centuries along divided channels.” The milestones of the early United States meant little to black Americans, Johnson said, until the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, when “an American victory was also a Negro victory.”

Think about this: in the years after the Second World War, there were two black members of congress. Two. William Dawson from Chicago’s South Side, and Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell were the black congressional caucus! Today there are more than 40 black members of congress, including two U.S. senators. Behind them are mayors, county commissioners, state senators and state representatives, sheriffs, aldermen, committeewomen, and on and on. Black Americans are full participants in American political life and their votes sought by politicians of all colors.

The changes in American politics in the decades since the Voting Rights Act have emboldened the states living under its strictures to wonder out loud whether the law is now a 20th-century relic, unnecessary in a continent-sized country of more than 300 million people led by a black president. Across the South, and in Arizona, Alaska and scattered areas across the country (including my own home town of Brooklyn, N.Y.), federal oversight is required for elections and electoral maps. Increasingly, states like Texas are bridling under the requirements imposed by the Act as it approaches its 50th anniversary.

Black mayors have run many of the biggest cities in the states still regulated by the Voting Rights Act: Charlotte, Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston. South Carolina has a black U.S. Senator. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina is one of the most powerful men in the House. Mission accomplished, right?

Yes … and no. File under “unintended consequences” — the way forming minority “supermajority” districts helped the Republican Party march toward dominating the South by concentrating minority voters in districts that knit together towns dozens of miles apart. Rep. Mel Watt’s old North Carolina district marched across a hundred miles of the state, grouping black voters together into a district a black politician could win, and at the same time diluting the Democratic vote in surrounding districts. It can be argued, and many have, that the house members who ran in districts emptied of black voters no longer had to spend much time worrying about college access, economic opportunity, and progress for black Americans.

While they’ve quietly taken advantage of Voting Rights Acts era mapping, Republican politicians have also complained about the continued imposition of the Act as Washington interference in local affairs. Even in 2013, it’s never too late to bang the States Rights drum. Black and Latino politicians across the South and the Southwest insist that the Act is still necessary. The gross, violent oppression of Mexican-American and black voters is no longer a central part of our politics. On that much, all sides agree. But the lines that snake through polling places and stretch out the door and into the parking lot, the new laws that minority advocates say make it harder to vote, speak to continued tension over race and political power. After Texas’ huge increase in Latino population garnered four new congressional seats since the 2010 census, voting rights advocates wondered how many new districts the state would create where Latinos could win … four? Two? One? Texas tried none. Finally, the Texas congressional candidates ran under a map drawn by a federal court.

And another thing: the belief that minority supermajority districts are necessary to elect minority legislators rests on the belief that white voters won’t vote for minority candidates. Unless these special districts are created, the logic runs, minority candidates won’t win even in areas where most voters are from their own party. If that’s true, is it still as true as it was in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed? Would veteran black and brown legislators running inside less race-conscious district lines all lose? How much representation should minority voters be willing to lose?

Whether or not you support the continued renewal of the Voting Rights Act, these are all questions worth pondering because the answers are not binary — yes/no, black/white, stop/go. This is a better country than it was in 1965. This is a country where plenty has changed in race relations since 1965. If the requirements of the Act were suddenly lifted, would majority populations in state after state be prepared to use the naked power of numbers to wipe out minority representation in state houses, on county boards, in the U.S. Congress?

The states willing to be rid of the Voting Rights Act are right, the Civil War is over. Minority voters are right when they insist the vestiges of Jim Crow still play some role in shaping daily life in America. Our past still speaks. Now it’s up to the Supreme Court to decide how loudly.


Oral history: Remembering the Voting Rights Act of 1965

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