The national commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act takes place against the backdrop of a devastating full-scale assault on the civil rights movement’s signature legislation.
For African Americans, the passage of the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965, represented the culmination of a centuries-long struggle for citizenship. President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the legislation, designed to end a century of voter disfranchisement in the South and other parts of the nation, was inspired by grassroots protests and organizing that gripped the nation. Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts in Selma, Ala., linked a local campaign for voting rights to a national movement to redefine American democracy.
The VRA ended decades of voter disfranchisement by mandating federal oversight of states with the most egregious records of racial discrimination at the polls. By the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of black elected officials emerged at the local, state and national levels as African Americans emerged as power brokers capable of leading major urban cities (Atlanta, Detroit, Newark, N.J., Los Angeles and New York) and influence federal policy through the actions of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The biggest victory in the long struggle for voting rights belonged to African Americans, whose increasing vote helped shift the balance of local and national elections.
Barack Obama’s emergence as the nation’s first black president would have been impossible without the VRA, which also helped to inspire Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns as well as the young Sen. Obama’s own presidential run in 2007.
Black votes proved critical to catapulting Obama to the Democratic Party nomination in 2008 and in the general election. In 2012 the black vote reached full maturity, with census data indicating that the rate of African-American voting surpassed that of whites for the first time in American history.
These stunning results should have inspired a national celebration but instead triggered revulsion and panic among conservatives who have made it their mission to roll back hard-won voting rights. The Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision amplified efforts to restrict voting access by eliminating federal oversight of changes in voter laws by 15 states (including Texas, South Carolina and North Carolina) that have a history of racial discrimination.
In short order, many of these states have instituted voter-ID laws designed to reduce the number of African-American, Latino and poor people who vote. Other states, such as Florida and Ohio, have ended early voting, halted extended poll time, and instituted a variety of measures intended to blunt the force and impact of a black vote that helped twice elect President Obama.
Civil rights activists, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and other grassroots political organizers have responded with massive protests, most notably Moral Mondays in North Carolina, designed to challenge voter restrictions and state budget cuts that have impacted schools, poor people and the elderly.
President Obama’s recent political renaissance has found him eloquently addressing issues of racial injustice, gun violence, mass incarceration, immigration and environmental reform.
Voting rights are the key to successful reform around these issues.
Fifty years after the passion of a King became the passion of a president who harvested the bounty of a people living in bondage, we remain perpetually caught in a feedback loop. Each insistent step toward social justice, racial equality and human rights is combated by the forces of reaction who remain determined to roll back the clock to Jim Crow America, an era during which access to good schools, neighborhoods and jobs, as well as to voting, was overwhelmingly reserved for whites.
While many consider those bad old days to be the ancient markers of a long-buried past, the contemporary assault on voting rights illustrates how America’s racial history continues to bleed into our present.
The civil rights movement’s effort to radically transform American democracy remains unfinished and ongoing. The age of Obama is also the age of Ferguson, Mo.; Charleston, S.C.; and Baltimore. The new white backlash—in the form of mass incarceration, renewed public school and residential segregation, and, most critically, the denial of voting rights—has inspired both the Moral Mondays and Black Lives Matter movements.
The struggle for black citizenship, equality and the vote promises to continue well into the future. It reminds us that past social-justice victories do not guarantee present freedoms or even basic rights. The slow deterioration of the Voting Rights Act over the past half-century proves how political victories from one era can be undone in two generations as black Americans feel the disorienting effects of our national civil rights time warp, where past racial progress symbolically obscures present-day racial oppression.
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.