In the long battle for human rights in this country, one of the most important victories was the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It transformed American politics, but nowhere more than in the South.
In the 44 intervening years, the Voting Rights Act has been extended five times by Democratic and Republican Congresses and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in every challenge. Today, it is before the High Court again, and many eyes will be following the action.
The Voting Rights Act was Congress’ response to the tumultuous events of 1964. First, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act in July, desegregating public facilities and services, including restaurants and buses. White Southerners revolted. GOP signs and bumper stickers appeared across the South in large number for the first time. Sen. Strom Thurmond bolted to the Republican Party.
In the November election, the Southern states left the Democratic tent for good, redrawing the national political map. During that election, attempts to suppress the black vote were so numerous and so egregious that Congress decided it was time to act.
The Voting Rights Act struck down such insidious Southern institutions as the poll tax, the literacy test, and other time-worn techniques to keep blacks from the polls. Based on the 15th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act targeted states with a history of vote suppression based on race. Eight former Confederate states — including South Carolina — plus parts of eight other states were identified as needing Justice Department supervision in writing voting laws and drawing district lines.
This supervision — or “preclearance” — of voting laws and venues galled the states which had to submit to it, but it had its effect. With the Justice Department overseeing elections, politics in the South changed quickly and profoundly. Blacks registered across the region in record numbers. In South Carolina, 12 black delegates attended the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and, in 1970, three blacks were elected to the General Assembly for the first time since the 1890s; by 1975 the number had grown to 13. In the face of the changing political climate, even Strom Thurmond discovered that he was a racial moderate.
Over the years, the Voting Rights Act has been challenged in federal court many times (including by the state of South Carolina in 1965). Today the challenge comes from the Austin, Texas, suburb of Canyon Creek. The town is trying to have the preclearance clause thrown out, claiming that it stigmatizes the community as racist.
Georgia and Alabama have filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiff’s jurisdiction. We can be grateful that our attorney general decided not to get involved, a remarkable moment of self-restraint in a state famous for tilting at windmills.
I would love to think that this decision represents a quantum change in the way white South Carolinians look at politics, democracy, and their black neighbors, but I am not that naïve, especially in light of what our General Assembly is doing these days. Three bills are winding their way though the legislature, all designed to restrict voter participation of blacks, poor people, and the elderly — three groups heavily disposed to vote Democratic. (See The Good Fight, April 25.)
In a democratic society, one would think it would be the responsibility of government to protect the democratic process and expand it to as many citizens as possible. The GOP-controlled legislature is doing just the opposite with its plan to shorten the period for early voting, restrict absentee voting, and require a photo ID to vote. No, it’s not as insidious as the poll tax or the literacy test, but it is written in the same spirit and for the same purpose.
That’s why I hope the Supreme Court keeps its hands off the Voting Rights Act. Anybody who understands the history of this state and the politics of the moment will understand why electoral supervision is still needed here. In fact, it is possible that one or more of the voter-restriction laws currently under consideration in the General Assembly will be challenged under the Voting Rights Act.
I wish there were federal laws to control other aspects of our government. South Carolina has historically been among the most misgoverned states in the nation. (Thank God for Mississippi.) In matters of taxation and budgeting, public health and education, law enforcement and penology, we are little better than a third world country. Why would we trust something as important as our very democracy to the crooks and clowns in the Statehouse?
As long as we have the Voting Rights Act, we have hope for a better day.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.