On March 7, 1965, civil rights demonstrators were beaten by club-wielding police on the Edmund Petus Bridge at the start of what became the “Bloody Sunday” march to Montgomery. Selma, Ala, would be forever linked with the struggle for racial justice and passage of the Voting Rights Act.
However, in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Shelby County in Alabama has challenged the Act on the grounds that it is no longer relevant or constitutional. More specifically, the lawsuit questions whether the Voting Rights Act now represents reverse discrimination against Southern states.
Prior to the mid-1800s, the black vote was a limited franchise. The end of the Civil War gave Southern states another reason to erect obstacles. It took the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified, in 1870, to establish black suffrage. But by the turn of the 20th Century, a series of subtle and overt barriers reduced black voting participation. Intimidation was coupled with poll taxes, literacy tests and “grandfather” clauses that limited the vote to only those whose grandfathers had voted.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave real meaning to the right to vote. It effectively dismantled embedded discriminatory practices. These barriers had kept elected offices beyond the reach of black contenders.
No black American had been elected to Congress during the 20th Century in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina or Virginia until 1992 and the creation of majority-black districts in those states. No state, let alone the seat of the Confederacy, had ever elected a black governor until Virginia Democrat Douglas Wilder was elected in 1989.
The issue before the High Court surrounds Section 5 of the special provisions of the Act. It requires nine to 16 Southern states to obtain advance approval from the Justice Department for any election system change. States must show that any deviations – like Voter ID requirements –have no discriminatory purpose or effect, even if that is not their initial intent. It’s widely held that no redistricting plan can pass muster if it leaves minority voters worse off than they were before.
These provisions essentially ushered in bizarre and odd-shaped election district boundaries that accomplished what they were intended to do — maximize the black vote. It didn’t seem to matter to the civil rights establishment that the systematic constructing of “safe” seats for blacks was tantamount to re-segregating voters into political “homelands.”
In recent years, the courts have limited how far states may go in giving black voters and politicians an edge. Federal courts have disbanded mostly black majority districts in Florida, Louisiana and Georgia. The Supreme Court threw out predominantly minority congressional districts in Texas and North Carolina, saying the states unlawfully made race the main factor in drawing the boundaries.
The courts are onto something. Today, apathy, not legal impediments, is more likely to stand between black Americans and the voting booth.
In 1970, less than 1,000 blacks throughout the United States held elected office at the city and county level. Today, black elected officials number more than 10,000 across the political spectrum.
Black representation in the 435-member House of Representatives is up from 24 in 1992 to the current 44. Due to the Voting Rights Act, it is not surprising that most of the dramatic and historic gains are in Southern states. Mississippi, which once ranked last now ranks first in the total number of black elected officials, followed by Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia.
The old franchise –that disenfranchised – no longer exists. Americans have twice elected a black president. Never has the potential voting strength of blacks been so potent.
Whether or not the Supreme Court rules that the Section 5 provision of the Act protects an unacceptable system of racial quotas that distort American democracy, the right to vote for blacks is not in jeopardy. The United States Constitution guarantees that right, and that guarantee has no expiration date.