“Don’t put that out there” is the admonition delivered to folks impolite enough to talk about bad things which might happen but have not yet come to pass, as if mere discussion or consideration of some awful possibility makes it more likely. We at BC understand politeness. But failing to recognize, to examine and to understand unpleasant possibilities before they become devastating realities is worse than impolite. It’s foolish.
The unpleasant truths of this political moment are:
1. Renewable portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) seem increasingly likely to die in the Congress this session.
2. Recent Supreme Court decisions indicate the court is inclined to “interpret” permanent provisions of the Voting Rights Act into meaninglessness.
3. Democrats in the US. House and Senate seem disinclined to fight very hard for the voting rights of blacks, and;
4. With no superpower rival on the international scene and the domestic mass movement disbanded and sent home a generation ago, the powers that be face little or no meaningful consequences at home or abroad for killing the VRA.
Significance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
The University of Michigan’s Elizabeth Anderson and Jeffrey Jones, in their excellent web offering titled The Geography of Race in the US, identify five types of direct disenfranchisement addressed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These are violence against those who would register or vote, electoral fraud, poll taxes, literacy tests, restrictive and arbitrary registration practices, and white-only primary elections.
The Civil War ended slavery, but left many questions unsettled. The Reconstruction governments, which opened up access to education and a measure of equality before the law to former slaves, and which allowed blacks to vote and hold office were swept aside in a wave of postwar violence and bloodshed that southern whites called redemption. This was the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
Hundreds of black businesses and schools were torched, their white and black teachers killed or driven away. Armed gangs of whites confronted black voters at polling places throughout the region. Ballot boxes were stolen, stuffed and destroyed. Black elected officials in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana were evicted from office by armed whites or murdered routinely and with impunity. Federal courts of the era refused to enforce any right to take part in federal elections, and ruled that since participation in local elections wasn’t a right guaranteed by the federal government that was out of their hands too, freeing southern states to ignore armed violence against black voters if they chose, or to erect their own legal barriers against them as long as these barriers were not explicitly race-specific in nature.
Georgia was first to adopt the poll tax in 1871, and in 1877 made the tax cumulative, which meant that if you were old enough to vote ten years ago, before you could vote this year, you had to prove that all your poll taxes for the past decades, were paid along with interest and penalties. In a few years every former Confederate state adopted the poll tax. Since most blacks were sharecroppers who saw very little cash in the course of a year, this measure alone cut the black vote by half. States made registration inconvenient and inaccessible, introduced felony disenfranchisement for offenses blacks were deemed more likely to commit than whites, implemented literacy tests and dozens of other measures. Courts conveniently ruled that the Democratic Party, which was the White Man’s party in the South of that time, was a private and non-governmental organization, could explicitly ban nonwhite voters from its primary elections, and the whites-only primary also became a southern staple.
The poll tax was removed by constitutional amendment in the early 1960s, but the rest of this array of impediments, including mob violence with impunity, were still in force in large parts of the southern US until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The VRA made it an offense punishable by imprisonment to conspire or act to intimidate or threaten black voters, or engage in many practices which had been customary for generations of southern officials. The VRA also required that ballot materials in areas with large numbers of voters whose English proficiency is limited, such as many Asian American and Latino communities, be printed in those languages too. And most tellingly of all, any changes in voting or election law which affected the votes of African Americans in those states which had openly and explicitly carried out a public policy of excluding or limiting black participation, would have to be approved by Justice Department officials before they could be put into effect.
So large was the segment of America’s white ruling elite that objected to the VRA that the last two provisions could only be attached to it on a temporary and renewable basis. It is this renewal which is before Congress now.
The Balance of Forces in 1965, and Today
Passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was no easy trick, and required a unique lineup of forces quite unlike anything on the horizon today.
In the legislative process, the VRA had as its chief sponsor the president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson. An enthusiastic supporter of the VRA, and former Senate Majority Leader during most of the 1950’s Johnson was famously effective at bribing, cajoling, persuading and when necessary threatening legislators to get his way.
A key external factor behind a portion of the US elite’s embrace of the cause of black voting rights was the presence on the international scene of a superpower rival to the US, the Soviet Union. The USSR was a global competitor of the US, and the persistent denial of black civil and voting rights placed the US at a severe disadvantage, especially with Asian and African people who had their own all too recent and bitter memories of racist exploitation and colonialism at the hands of European powers. Ending Jim Crow, for a piece of the US elite, was a Cold War priority.
And spurring presidents, judges, legislators, the media and pundits of the time was a vast, decentralized and often illegal mass movement with inroads and a presence in virtually every black community across the land. Though many of the movement’s principals espoused Ghandhian nonviolence, not all did, and an even greater number had a healthy disrespect for the law. The willingness to encourage masses of people to step outside the law when the occasion demanded it was in fact, central to Dr. Martin Luther King’s version of nonviolence:
“We contend that the law that is broken must be broken openly, cheerfully, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that any individual who disobeys a law that conscience tells him is unjust and is willing to pay the penalty by staying in jail, if necessary in order to arouse the conscience of the community concerning the injustice of that law, is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for the law.”
It was common, for instance, for mobilizations of the 1960s to empty a town or a city’s high schools to put bodies in the street in defiance of the writ of judges, legislators and local sheriffs. The Freedom Movement, as most of its knowledgeable actors called it, was the engine behind the end of Jim Crow and the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1968.
The whole lineup stands in stark contrast to the political scene of today. In 1965, the pro-voting rights forces had the president, and that president had the congress and the courts. Lyndon Johnson’s dire prediction that the white South would go Republican for at least a generation in response to the limited triumphs of the Freedom Movement has come true. Republicans have replaced Democrats as the White Man’s Party of the South, and southern blacks, many of whom could not vote at all 40 years ago, are a majority or near majority of southern Democrats. In some states they are nearly all the Democrats.
Instead of an activist, pro-civil rights president we have George W. Bush, whose abysmal record and willingness to pander to racism at every opportunity speaks for itself. Republican leaders in the House and Senate earlier this summer were shouted down in their own caucus by legislators who opposed the VRA, causing their leaders to table it for the time being. Whether Republican leaders will bring it up again, and in what form is anybody’s guess. Whether they will be willing to put the screws to reluctant Republicans to vote for it is even more doubtful. For their part, savvy Democrats like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi calculated that yanking the names of all the Congress’s black members from co-sponsorship improved its chances for passage. But even after removing the offending faces of black legislators from co-sponsorship, no white national Democrat has been willing to step up and be the face and point person for this legislation, telling Americans why we still need a VRA.
In 1965, at least some of the federal judiciary supported the cause of black voting rights. But no more. Rightists have been campaigning against suspected liberals on the bench since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The radical rightist Federalist Society is widely believed to have exercised a near monopoly of clerkships for federal judges for some time now. And federal appellate judges have lifetime tenure. Hence we can expect the courts to be increasingly hostile to the cause of black voting rights for the foreseeable future.
Nowadays, the US has no rival on the world stage. American politicians openly proclaim their disrespect for international law or international anything, and their disdain for world opinion. Ignorant politicos who ascribe foreign criticism to jealousy, and “they hate our freedom” are treated as though they talk sense.
And what of the 1960s mass movement, which could turn out crowds, which cranked up demonstrations, boycotts and unlawful mass actions in hundreds of cities and towns north and south? Dr. King died believing that mass action had definitely not outlived its usefulness. But black leaders after his death called what amounted to a unilateral truce, and disbanded the mass movement. The fire beneath the feet of judges, media and politicians and the white and black elite was extinguished.
As BC co-publisher Glen Ford reminded us in a January 2005 cover story:
“Now that Blacks had the vote, North and South, some sectors of African Americans decided it was time to get out of the streets so that a few Blacks might occupy high political offices and corporate suites. The masses would be summoned every few years at election time, or to celebrate the latest entrepreneurial acquisition or corporate promotion among the thin slice of Blacks who had, indeed, been set ‘free at last’ by the civil rights gains of King’s unfinished movement.”
With few or no visible powerful advocates in any branch of government, without much support in the corporate mass media, with American authorities determined to ignore world opinion and with the mass movement sent home a generation ago, it may be time for black America to contemplate where we will be by the end of this year, with a severely weakened Voting Rights Act. We may be about to see one of the seminal gains of the 1945-1965 Freedom Movement rolled back.
Some have said that we marched in the Sixties and got the VRA, we marched in the Seventies and the war went away. We should march again. That’s probably true. But the custom nowadays is for marches to look more like picnics, and for everybody to go home the next day. That’s not how it worked in Belarus or the Philippines and it’s not how it worked here forty years ago. Back in the day, people stayed in the street till something changed. A march is one day. A movement continues till it obtains a victory or something changes. Or until misguided leaders send it home.
Bruce Dixon is the editor of the Black Commentator. This article was the lead story in the issue of July 13, 2006.