DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bending Toward Justice

At 22, Bernard Lafayette was already a veteran of the Civil Rights wars. He had been a Freedom Rider. He had worked in the Mississippi heat to register poor black voters. Now, on this 1963 day, he was awaiting his next assignment from his leader James Foreman. In front of both men was a giant map of the South. Lafayette noticed there was a large X over a portion of Alabama. Lafayette asked about the X. Foreman said it had been placed there since it had been determined that it would be hopeless to mount of voter registration drive in that area, which included the city of Selma, called by many at the time the most racist city in all of the South.

Foreman explained the reasoning behind that decision. Less than 1% of all the eligible African-American voters in Dallas County had been able to register. The 1st obstacle was a formidable 3-page application that had to be filled out if you were black. Make 1 simple mistake and your request would be rejected.  If you did successfully complete the application, you had to take an oral test with inane questions on federal, state, and local governments. One question was to name all the county judges in Alabama. There were 67 of them. Finally, if you somehow completed those 2 tasks, you had to pay a poll tax.

But the problems didn't stop there. If you did become a registered voter, your name was published for 2 weeks in the local paper so it could be seen by every segregationist and Ku Klux Klan member in the area. Even worse, you became a target of Sheriff Jim Clark, a 6'3" 225-pound brutal racist who always carried a pistol, a cattle prod, and a rope as he enforced his version of the law, a version that contained no provisions for the well-being of any black person.

Lafayette knew immediately what he wanted to do "He said 'that's where I want to go," says history professor and author Gary May. "What did he have to lose except for his life?"

In his new book, Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, May tells the story behind the historic enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Of course, the major players such as Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson play prominent roles in the story, but May said he wanted to focus on other influential characters, such as Lafayette, that were "lost in history's shadow."

"I was trying to write a people's history of the Voting Rights Act," May told the audience who came to the National Archives today to hear him talk about his book. "These were people who risked everything ... they risked their lives for the right to vote and they earned it and then they fought to preserve it."

For those unfamiliar with the story, Lafayette and others began a dangerous, arduous process that eventually led to a bloody confrontation on a Selma bridge that so horrified and galvanized the nation that President Johnson was able to get a Voting Rights bill through Congress.

"The Voting Rights Act was written with the blood and the bruises of the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge," May said.

Since the enactment in 1965, the law has been renewed 4 more times - in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. But now, May said, it is facing its toughest challenge. This year, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from representatives of Shelby County, Alabama, claiming that the law is unconstitutional since it treats states differently. They especially object to a provision that makes 9 states (most of them in the South) have to get any voting law changes approved by the Federal Department of Justice.  A ruling on that case is expected later this year.

May says he hopes the Supreme Court rules in favor of continuing the provisions of the Act, which opponents contend are antiquated and no longer needed. "Voter suppression is as American as apple pie. The voting rights wars have a long, long, history," May said. "It's a fallacious argument to say the voting laws are no longer needed. Look at what was tried in 2011 and 2012. Yes, we have made progress. But how many governors of Louisiana, of Mississippi, of Alabama, of Texas, of South Carolina, have been African-Americans? Things have gotten better, but I don't think we can go back."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
May was asked what he thinks will happen at the Supreme Court level. "I'm optimistic," he said. "Even if the Supreme Court were to overturn provisions in the act, it would only be a temporary setback. Very often the best friends of the Civil Rights movement are its enemies. This could create momentum to have revisions that, in the long run, could nationalize and strengthen the voting rights act."

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