(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.
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.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.