From Selma to Shelby, Voting-Rights Struggle Lives On

Voting should be made easier, not harder, for citizens in this American democracy.

A young man voting in the 2012 presidential election (J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)
A young man voting in the 2012 presidential election (J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

(The Root) — This week marks the 48th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, arguably the most important single piece of legislation passed during the civil rights era. President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation in a public ceremony that included Martin Luther King Jr., who received a handshake and an official pen from the president.

Until recently, this scene had been portrayed as the end of the struggle for black citizenship and equality. Coupled with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision on May 17, 1954, voting-rights legislation has served as a bookend to the movement’s heroic period. But now is the time to revisit the violent political battles that culminated in the passage of the VRA and continue today.

Indeed, the recent assault on voting rights from the nation’s highest court reveals that we have not, in fact, overcome. For black Americans, the price of the ticket for freedom, justice and democracy, paid in blood by past generations, requires continual vigilance, sacrifice and courage.

The Supreme Court’s June 25 Shelby County v. Holder decision to strike down the preclearance section of the VRA has opened up a Pandora’s box of political mischief designed to curtail the black (and Latino) vote without threat of the federal oversight that gave teeth to the original law. In its perverse reasoning, the court opined (pdf) that since the formula behind preclearance had not been updated in 40 years, it could not possibly reflect the enormous racial progress of America in the age of Obama.

Ironically, the decision implicitly encourages states where black voting rights have been historically under siege to resume this pattern of discriminatory voter access (including, but not limited to, voter-ID laws) that is the 21st-century equivalent of the Jim Crow laws that sprang to life during Reconstruction.

Although many commentators, legal scholars and pundits expressed stunned outrage in the aftermath of Shelby, this anniversary week of the Voting Rights Act should give us all pause. We should remember that securing the right to vote, even in the wake of Selma, proved enormously difficult.

Southern Dixiecrats regarded the prospect of black women and men exercising the franchise as an affront to tradition, society and democracy. The reverberations of black voting rights transformed voter allegiances and virtually overnight permanently realigned America’s two-party system. After signing the VRA, Johnson reportedly commented that the Democratic Party had lost the South for at least a generation.

This was an overly optimistic prediction. For at least two generations since the passage of the act, Democrats have had tremendous electoral difficulty competing in the South.

But recent demographic changes — marked by the growing Latino vote, a decline in white voter turnout and an increase in black voter turnout, especially during the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections — have shifted national politics. In 2012, according to the Census Bureau, black voter turnout surpassed that of whites for the first time in American history. The remarkably high level of black voter participation (which exceeded that of 2008) provided Barack Obama with the crucial support needed for a second term.