(Special to The Root) — In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and called it a "triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield." But this past election season we were back on the battlefield, waging a nonviolent struggle against the greatest wave of voter suppression since Johnson's tenure. Even President Obama was moved to concede that the war for voting rights has not yet been won.
Today marks a consequential battle in that fight. Just seven years after Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for a fourth time — at which time then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman called it "one of the great moral achievements of the 20th century" — the U.S. Supreme Court will debate the merits of Section 5 in Shelby County v. Holder.
Section 5 allows the federal government to strike down discriminatory voting laws before they take effect. The lawyers for Shelby County, Ala., will argue that Section 5 is no longer relevant. They will make this argument despite the recent rash of voter-ID requirements, race-based redistricting, registration obstacles and early-voting cutbacks that have specifically targeted communities of color.
If Shelby County's argument prevails, the decision will eviscerate the heart of our nation's voting-rights defense. Section 5 does not apply to the whole country, but it does cover a wealth of the fastest-growing voting blocs, from the Bronx and Brooklyn in New York City to the depths of Mississippi.
Last year Section 5 protected millions of eligible Texans, Floridians and South Carolinians who could have lost their access to the ballot box in 2012. Without Section 5, we risk an onslaught of state legislation that will shrink the electorate, expand a social and political underclass and create impenetrable political fiefdoms.
Despite claims to the contrary, no other part of the VRA comes close to offering the same level of protection against attacks on the vote. Section 2 of the VRA gives the Department of Justice permission to challenge changes in voting laws — but only after discrimination has already been proved.
Section 2 requires voters to suffer during at least one election. And it asks voters to trust the same politicians who, according to a former GOP consultant, knowingly cut early voting "because that's a big day when the black churches organize themselves." It is simply not the same as Section 5.
As the Supreme Court considers Shelby County v. Holder and reviews the NAACP's amicus brief, we will continue to fight in legislative chambers and governors' offices across the country. Since the election, Michigan, New Hampshire, Virginia, Wisconsin and other states have introduced legislation that has the potential to disenfranchise voters of color. We will continue to educate voters and motivate them to resist voter-suppression measures in their states.
We will also encourage more elected officials to follow the example of leaders like former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, both of whom vetoed restrictive voter-ID bills. Finally, we will work hard to restore the votes of citizens with felony convictions who have duly finished their time.
Months before President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience of thousands in Selma, Ala., and millions more on radios and televisions across the country, that "the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength."
This year the Supreme Court justices will determine if that strength, the power to effect change, will be endangered. They will decide whether the most egregious era of voter suppression will be allowed to repeat itself. Even if we lose this battle, the fight for voting rights is far from over, and we are confident that victory is in reach.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is the president and CEO of the NAACP.
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