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, Alabama would be forever linked with the struggle for racial justice and passage of the Voting Rights Act.
But in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Alabama’s Shelby County 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. 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 barriers – poll taxes, literacy tests, and “grandfather” clauses – reduced black voting participation.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave real meaning to the right to vote. It effectively dismantled embedded discriminatory practices that had kept elected office beyond the reach of black contenders. No black American had been elected to Congress in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Virginia until 1992. No state, let alone the seat of the Confederacy, had elected a black governor until Virginia Democrat Douglas Wilder in 1989.
At issue before the High Court is Section 5 of the special provisions of the act. It requires 9-16 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. It’s widely held that no redistricting plan can pass muster if it leaves minority voters worse off than they were before.
These provisions ushered in 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 constructing “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 politicians an edge. Federal courts have disbanded mostly black majority districts in Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia. The Supreme Court threw out 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 held elected office at the city and county level. Today, elected black officials number more than 10,000.
Black representation in the 435-member House of Representatives is up from 24 in 1992 to 44 today. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, most of the gains are in southern states. Mississippi – which once ranked last – now ranks first in 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. However the Supreme Court rules on Section 5, the right to vote for blacks is not in jeopardy.
The Constitution guarantees that right – and that guarantee has no expiration date.