The 30-year project of the Republicans and ultra-conservatives to crush civil rights took a qualitative leap forward when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a 5-4 decision announced on June 25.
This is the 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which the Rev. Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Outrageously, Chief Justice John Roberts trampled the legacy of King and the civil rights movement by citing Selma, Ala., and Philadelphia, Miss., where blood was spilled to uphold the right to vote, in his majority opinion discarding a crucial section of the Voting Rights.
The court’s majority lied to America about both the past and the present, presenting a mythology of a “post-racial” society and scolding Congress for voting by large bipartisan majorities in 2006 to reauthorize the law. The ruling claimed that the nine Southern states and numerous counties that the law singles out for special attention had changed and therefore don’t need to be “precleared” by the Department of Justice before changing any voting law, district or procedure. The reality, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent, is that whatever positive changes have happened in those states is in part because of the existence of the Voting Rights Act. In fact, recent data has shown that more than 1,000 attempts to change voting laws were either blocked or withdrawn because they violated the Voting Rights Act.
Throwing out the law’s provisions, Ginsburg said, makes as much sense as throwing away an umbrella because it keeps you dry. In other words, when a law works, you do not get rid of it.
Republicans, hell-bent on suppressing the vote, have continued to create new schemes to deny Americans their basic right of self-government. Gerrymandering, voter ID laws, restrictions on voter registration drives, disenfranchisement of ex-felons, purging of voter lists, impossibly confusing ballots that create chaos and long lines at the polls – all these are not of the past. These are the new poll taxes aimed at Black, Latinos, Native and Asian Americans, immigrants, college students, seniors and low-income voters.
The Voting Rights Act was won after massive struggles to break the back of Jim Crow racism and segregation of African Americans. But the law also expanded democracy for all. It afforded multiple protections for all voters, such as providing ballots and instructions in Spanish, Chinese or other languages, and special provisions for senior and disabled voters.
On Aug. 24, people will gather at the Lincoln Memorial to “realize” King’s freedom dream. This 50th Anniversary March on Washington takes on additional importance given the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the law won by struggle and sacrifice.
Organizations like ColorOfChange and the Advancement Project are calling for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. Congress – even in its dysfunctional state – needs to be pressured to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act with an expanded and updated map of districts and states requiring “preclearance.” But most importantly, this court decision should serve as a wakeup call for mass mobilization for the 2014 midterm elections – to take Congress and statehouses out of the hands of tea party extremists.