Fifty years ago this month, Medgar Evers arrived at his home near Jackson, Miss., in the early morning hours of June 12. The evening before, President John F. Kennedy had delivered his landmark televised address to the nation, calling on Congress to pass legislation ensuring the civil and voting rights of black Americans. It was a tumultuous year — culminating in the seminal march on Washington later that summer and Kennedy’s assassination in November.
Out of the ashes of 1963, Congress, under a new president, did pass a Civil Rights Act in 1964, and in 1965, the Voting Rights Act.
This week, in striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court invoked that ugly history — declaring it an artifact of a bygone era, rendering the act irrelevant to the way voting laws are administered today. A crowing Chief Justice Roberts took pains to point out that Philadelphia, Miss., and Selma, Ala., two of the hot spots during 1964’s “freedom summer,” are today governed by black mayors. “Problems remain in these states and others,” he said, “but there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our nation has made great strides.”
Also, did you notice that the guy in the Oval Office is black? Throw in the majority’s references to high voting levels among minorities in 2012, and the court’s decision amounts to blaming black voters for the demise of the signal accomplishment of the Civil Rights Movement.
Clearly, America has changed considerably since the 1960s. No longer is racial terror the order of the day in the southern enclaves that barred black people from exercising their citizenship, by law or by force, all those years ago.
And yet, Barack Obama’s election and reelection as president exposed deep, continuing fault lines of race, region and generation in our country, with white, rural and southern Americans, and black, brown, young and urban voters increasingly lining up on opposite sides of the ideological fence.
The tension between older “tea party” America and younger, browner America courses through every national debate and every vote in Congress and in our legislatures — on healthcare, programs for the poor, immigration and guns.
And it courses through our electoral politics, too — not in theory, but in fact.
Before a single vote was cast in the last presidential election, GOP governors and legislatures, from Florida to Wisconsin, studied ways to break the cycle of generational and racial drift toward Democrats. Their methods were not vintage 1960s, but tailored to the modern age. Voter ID laws, limitations to early voting that choked off the “souls to the polls” Sunday before Election Day — traditionally favored by black churches — demands for proof of citizenship and more. Combined, they represented a full-throated attack on the kinds of voters Republicans fear they can’t woo with their conservative ideology, so they’d just as soon keep them home.
Groups like True the Vote organized to fight fictional in-person voter fraud, including by physically intimidating voters at the polls. Make them feel “like they’re driving with the police following you” was how True the Vote’s national elections coordinator Bill Ouren put it.
The restrictions didn’t need to be coded by race: They were designed with the full knowledge that young and minority voters, students, the disabled, the poor and the elderly are far less likely than white voters to possess the kinds of identification that would be required at the polls. In Texas, a gun license was good enough. A student ID was not.
Now, thanks to the court, Alabama, Mississippi, Arizona, Georgia, Alaska, Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, no longer need federal assent to enact their voting laws. Those who feel victimized by those laws will have to find their remedies in the courts. Because while the Roberts court claims Congress is free to legislate new formulas for divining which states and counties would restrict the right to vote, we all know Congress won’t.
Without Section 4, which sets the rules for which states require preclearance, Section 5, the preclearance requirement itself, has no meaning. The malevolent Clarence Thomas’ sneering call to rid the country of that section, too, isn’t required. Our most ironic justice gets to have his way without another 5-4 vote.
2014 will be our first national election unbridled by the Voting Rights Act that emerged out of the horrors of 1963. We have indeed entered a post-civil rights era, where the protection of minority rights is deemed by Justice Antonin Scalia to be “racial entitlements,” and the court legislates in place of Congress, to “protect” Old America from the rest of us.