When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, president Lyndon Johnson didn’t spare the hyperbole.
“Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield,” he said, adding later, “today, we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds.”
Who could blame his excitement? It took boycotts, assaults, demonstrations, demonstrations that ended with assaults and a speech for the ages to muster the political will to allow Blacks across the nation to vote without interference.
The Civil Rights Act went through a year earlier. The movement headlined by Martin Luther King Jr. turned from a snail to a creature with sprinters’ legs.
But acts aren’t laws. Acts depend on judicial bodies over time to uphold them.
On Wednesday, nine justices in the Supreme Court Building will confronted by Shelby County v Holder, a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Nine states – Alabama, Georgia, Arizona, Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – seek to get rid of a law that requires them to get federal approval for any change to a voting-related practice.
This runs the gamut from moving a polling location from a middle school to elementary school across the street, to voter ID laws to redistricting. It was created as a safeguard for Black voters because, as my grandma would say, white folks didn’t wanna act right.
But singular-edged swords are rare, opponents argue. To many, this law works against the essence of its stated intent, encouraging racial separation and identity politics. More to the point, Shelby argues that the law impedes states’ rights and is – buzz word alert – unconstitutional.
What is constitutional … and which part of the constitution is more weightier than others? It becomes more subjective and slippery the deeper one gets into political discussions. Both sides can use the same document to “accurately” prove their points.
What matters more is what the upholders of the act view as constitutional. In the case of the upcoming SCOTUS decision, Chief Justice John Roberts has shown little love for provisions based on racial preference. He’s already expressed “serious misgivings” about VRA’s constitutionality on a prior Section 5 challenge, while Clarence Thomas is, well, Clarence Thomas.
The Supreme Court has the power to uphold a barrier to discrimination or liberate states from the yoke of federal control. Whichever side of the argument you fall, one thing is unmistakable: Minorities are once again in the position of “wait and see” for a ruling that should be basic rights in this country.
Voting is essentially American; it allows the ‘one person, one voice’ decree to live and it’s what separates America from other countries. Democracy is predicated on equal inclusion from citizens.
But recent (and not so recent) events indicate that is more mythic than actual. Texas and South Carolina tried to enact strict voter ID laws before the Department of Justice shut that down. Florida continues to battle voting improprieties and cracks in its political process.
If SCOTUS shoots down Section 5, it could result in tighter voter ID laws (which will hit minorities the hardest) and near carte blanche political control by Republicans in the South. The course of Black Americans will directly be affected, an instability in 2013 that doesn’t quite depart from the ‘fierce and ancient bonds’ of systemic bias that Lyndon Johnson proclaimed over upon this act’s passing.
In the realm of politics, vicious vestiges of our past still confront us. If Jim Crow took a blow in the executive branch, his grip in the judicial and legislative branches still holds firm.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called this act “our nation’s most important civil rights statute.” At the end of February, it’s fitting that a decision in Washington stands to effectively bridge Black history to the present.