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)

So it comes as no surprise that African-American voters find themselves targeted by conservative politicians, state legislatures and federal courts regarding the most fundamental exercise of citizenship. For example, in the aftermath of the Shelby decision, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, Alabama and Pennsylvania took immediate action to enact voter-ID laws.

Such laws, which require government-issued identification rather than a simple name on the voter rolls, implicitly target poor black voters, who are less likely to have such documentation. Texas voter-ID laws are considered the strictest in America, requiring proof of both citizenship and residency through either a passport or a birth certificate. Many African Americans do not have passports, and for poor people the cost ($135 for a first-time adult applicant) of one can be prohibitive.

The primary mission of the Voting Rights Act was to prevent states with a history of voter discrimination from being able to erect such legal barriers to the exercise of citizenship. Under the old federal preclearance section of the VRA, none of these states would have been able to implement voter-ID laws without Justice Department approval.  

The fundamental thread that connects the old and new voting-rights struggles is the effort by states to constrict black voter access. But in contrast to struggles fought in the 1950s and 1960s, the new battles are largely devoid of the kind of spectacular violence that accompanied the Selma, Ala., campaign. Yet the specter of voter intimidation continues through intrusive questioning at polling places; false rumors that citizens who have been arrested, or who owe child support or back taxes, cannot vote; and warnings that voter fraud carries stiff criminal penalties that include fines and arrest.

Efforts to discourage early voting are also a key feature of the new voter-suppression tactics. Florida and Ohio, two crucial battleground states in the 2012 presidential election, curtailed early voting in a naked effort to reduce the black vote. On election night in 2012, voting lines in some parts of Florida stretched as far as the eye could see. The striking visual of citizens waiting up to six hours to vote in Florida inspired President Obama to mention the need “to fix that” in his election-night victory remarks.

Cumulatively, these new laws strike at the heart of the Voting Rights Act by restricting, primarily by discouraging, black voter turnout.

Almost 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we must never forget the price that generations of blacks paid to transform American democracy. This struggle, despite wishful thinking and popular narratives to the contrary, continues. The stakes remain extraordinarily high. At the local and state levels, voting shapes the contours of democracy, ranging from criminal justice and health care to employment opportunities and public schools.

The ability to vote should be made easier, not harder, for citizens in this democracy. For a new generation of African Americans, this will require an understanding of the history behind civil rights-era victories that continue to be waged in the present.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.