"' the high price many paid for the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and the still higher cost we might yet bear if we prematurely discard one of the most vital tools of our democracy."
'amicus brief opposing the Shelby County challenge, Representative John Lewis (D-Ga)
The Supreme Court struck down Section 4, considered the heart, of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, on June 25. The 5-4 decision determined the section to be unconstitutional, as it essentially affected only certain states (those with a history of racial discrimination) who must receive prior approval from the Justice Department or a Washington court, before it could make changes in regards to voting procedures, such as redrawing electoral districts, according to The New York Times. Although Section 5, which stipulates the preclearance requirement, was not struck down, without Section 4, "the later section is without significance."
Reasoning included, "Our country has changed," where legislation passed should reflect the problem which speaks to the current conditions, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. for the majority. Chief Justice Roberts continues, the current system is "based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day." Chief Justice Roberts also wrote Congress still had the ability to "impose federal oversight in states where voting rights were at risk." However, with Congress' perpetual pattern of ineffectiveness, reaching an agreement as to "federal oversight" is unlikely.
However, the Chief Justice himself also stated, "African-American voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout in five of the six states originally covered by Section 5," also recalling the Freedom Summer of 1964, when civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered when they were seeking to register black voters near Philadelphia, Mississippi, and the marchers who were beaten by police in Selma, Alabama in 1965, infamously known as "Bloody Sunday." The Chief Justice continues, "Today, both these towns are governed by African-American mayors."
The reason: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Sections 4 and 5. Without these sections, these states (with the history of racial discrimination) would never have allowed the opportunity for the African-American mayors to be elected. Without access to voting booths, African-Americans cannot cast their ballots. Without oversight of gerrymandering, those districts would not reflect the votes.
The New York Times continues, the Supreme Court continually upheld the law in previous decisions, where the preclearance clause was an "effective tool to combat the legacy of lawless conduct by Southern officials bent on denying voting rights to blacks." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg summarized her dissent, claiming the law had been so effective in "thwarting such efforts," voting barriers from ballot access to racial gerrymandering. Congress had reauthorized the law in 2006: a unanimous vote in the Senate, a 390 to 33 vote in the House, and Republican President George W. Bush signing the bill into law, observing it as "an example of our continued commitment to a united America where every person is valued and treated with dignity and respect."
Consequences have already been seen. Texas announced their voter identification law, that had been blocked, would immediately go into effect. Potential redistricting would no longer require federal approval. Subsequent consequences remain to be seen. However, a major consequence is the hindrance of the progress (and future progress), civil rights workers have made in their fight for equal rights, particularly the work of thirteen-term Representative John Lewis, the "soul of the voting rights movement and its most eloquent advocate."
As recounted in The Nation, John Lewis was the third of ten children; his parents farmed cotton, corn, and peanuts, as he wore ties and preached to chickens, often sneaking away from the fields to attend school. Lewis began his life as an activist at age fifteen, after hearing an inspiration speech given by Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. As a life-long adherent to peaceful resistance, Lewis was instrumental "'in the sit-ins and Freedom Rides that hastened the demise of Jim Crow," while attending college. In 1970, Lewis became the head of the Voter Education Project, which registered two million voters from 1970-1977, who included Lewis's mother and father; "Hands that pick cotton' can now pick our elected officials."
On an overcast Sunday, Lewis packed his bag with an apple, an orange, a toothbrush, some toothpaste, and two books, to embark on a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in efforts to stress national attention to the "disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South and to protest the death of a young civil rights activist [Jimmie Lee Jackson]'" March 7, 1965.
According to NPR, in Marion, Alabama, a group of African-Americans were gathering at church one evening, where Alabama state troopers were called in to break up the meeting. Using billy clubs, they began to beat the protesters, including 26-year-old, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Vietnam War veteran. Jackson fled to a caf?, where he was beaten as he was protecting his mother and grandfather. Jackson was shot in the stomach by state trooper, James Bonard Fowler, and died in the hospital eight days later. Jackson's death would be a catalyst in the battle towards the Voting Rights Act.
The Nation continues, at the time, only 383 of the 15,000 African-American residents in Selma's Dallas County were registered to vote, as Lewis and his group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), were in a constant battle to register voters in Selma since 1963. Lewis and Hosea Williams, a top aide to Martin Luther King, Jr., led 600 local residents in the march; as Lewis recounts in his memoir, "There was something holy about it, as if we're walking down a sacred path'" Lewis led the sacred path to the landmark legislation that would solidify the commitment for each person to be valued, where each voice is valued.
As the marchers crossed Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers accosted them with batons and bullswhips. Demonstrators were trampled by troopers on horseback. The air was replete with tear gas. Lewis suffered a fractured skull from a clubbing; he thought he was going to die. As recounted by The New York Times, state troopers and sheriff's posse attacked 525 civil rights demonstrators, where more than 50 demonstrators were injured. "Amelia Boynton lay semiconscious on a table." Victims had suffered fractures of the ribs, head, arms, legs, as well as cuts and bruises. Americans were outraged after learning of the incident, where the most compelling image was of "Mrs. Boynton lying unconscious on the bridge'"
The Nation continues, eight days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before a joint session of Congress, stating, "It is wrong'deadly wrong'to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country." 100 years after the end of the Civil War, the Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965, deemed the most significant piece of civil rights legislation and the "most consequential laws ever passed by Congress." The Voting Rights Act led to the abolition of literacy tests and poll taxes; millions of minority voters were able to register, as segregationist registrars were replaced with federal registrars; states with a history of racial discrimination were required to attain approval from the federal government before implementing electoral changes; all building opportunity and the foundation for African-American elected officials, such as Representative John Lewis, and our nation's first African-American president, President Barack Obama.
The 2010 midterm elections marked another assault on voting rights as a dozen states had adopted new laws to restrict access to the ballot; Lewis viewed the restrictions as "an obvious ploy to suppress the power of the young and minority voters who formed the core of Obama's 'coalition of the ascendant' in 2008' [as Republicans] saw all these people getting registered as a threat to power." In July of 2011, Lewis delivered a passionate speech to a nearly empty chamber of the House, "There's a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional right to engage in the democratic process."
However, in 2012, the successful resistance to voter oppression was illustrated, where 1.7 million more African-Americans, 1.4 million more Hispanics, and 550,000 more Asians voted, compared to 2008. Most interesting, the largest increase was from African-Americans age 65 and older, where "Those, like Lewis, who had lived through the days when merely trying to register could get you killed were the people most determined to defend their rights'" To Lewis, "The vote is the most powerful nonviolence tool we have in a democratic society."
In the Supreme Court's recent decision, what alarmed Lewis was the arguments made by the Court's conservative judges. "It appeared to me that several members of the Court didn't have a sense of the history, what brought us to this point, and not just the legislative history and how it came about' [where] They seemed to be somewhat indifferent to why people fought so hard and so long to get the act passed in the first place. And they didn't see the need." Lewis's fear has become realized, with the justices asserting 50-years of federal efforts to combat historical discrimination in voting rights as no longer needed, "reforms that Lewis nearly died to win."
What is the price we will pay for the repeal of a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
Those who have fought for equality already have paid a high price for something they believed in. As Justice Ginsberg observes, "For half a century, a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream had been achieved and continues to be made," as accounted by The New York Times. For half a century, the policies implemented created opportunities for diversity and progress. The majority decision will undoubtedly adversely affect our political and social arena. Chief Justice Roberts claimed Section 4 had no relationship to the present day. However, as demonstrated even within the past three years, the implication of voting rights has a continual presence.
"When it comes to voting rights, you realize the past isn't the past."
'Ben Jealous, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored