Voting rights set back: Only struggle can reverse racist ruling

Two decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court the last week of June have provoked outrage among Civil Rights organizations and their allies.

Affirmative action policies in education and employment and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were two major advances that grew out of the African-American national movement. These were concessions granted by the racist ruling class after protracted struggle beginning in the 1950s.

The movement for universal suffrage actually began after the Civil War, when African-American and women organizers formed alliances to win the right to vote. But even a century later, activist groups in the community and on campuses were still struggling for affirmative action and demanding that Civil Rights laws be enforced by utilizing quotas and timetables aimed at changing the composition of the labor force and education.

Ever since then, affirmative action and voting rights have been under attack by the racist right wing. Now, with the court’s decisions, Civil Rights will be meaningless without the presence of laws and mechanisms to ensure equality.

Gutting affirmative action

Most opponents of affirmative action over the last several years have advanced arguments different than those the racists used prior to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The current notions of “race neutrality” or a “post-racial society” attempt to provide a rationale for the conclusion that programs which ostensibly guarantee basic democratic rights in U.S. society are no longer needed.

In Fisher v. University of Texas, a white high school graduate who had applied to the school and was not accepted alleged in the suit that the university’s denial was due to affirmative action programs that sought to enhance diversity at the institution. The case attempted to overturn another ruling made in 2003, Grutter v. Bollinger, involving the University of Michigan, which said that race could be one factor in admission decisions by a university.

Although the Supreme Court in its 7-1 decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, did not overturn affirmative action completely at the University of Texas, it sent the case back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for the development of new admissions formulas that place a higher standard for the use of race as a factor. This ruling could open the door for further decisions that would place greater restrictions on the admission of African Americans and other oppressed groups to colleges and universities.

The ruling provides legal motivations for opponents of affirmative action to challenge such programs at colleges, universities and other public institutions. The decision could open avenues for dozens of renewed efforts to completely outlaw efforts to enhance diversity and inclusion.

The Supreme Court ruling in Fisher is also problematic because its legal implications are broader than just higher education. The decision could make it very difficult to bring legal actions for employment discrimination because it sets higher burdens of proof on the claimants.

Eliminating voting rights enforcement

The affirmative action ruling was eclipsed by Shelby County v. Holder, a case originating in Alabama. The 5-4 ruling eliminated the two provisions in section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that determine whether voting rights have been violated, and the enforcement mechanism in section 5, which allows for federal intervention to block such attempts.

Justice John G. Roberts wrote the ruling, which calls for the U.S. Congress to develop new criteria for determining voting rights violations, based upon political and social changes that have occurred since the original bill was passed in 1965. The plaintiffs who brought the case argued that there has been enormous progress made over the last five decades and therefore close monitoring of possible violations was no longer needed.

The ruling cites the 10th Amendment of the Constitution in an effort to say that the states which are subjected to close monitoring and approval when seeking to change laws affecting voting rights are treated differently than those which are not. Similar arguments related to states’ rights were utilized during the 1950s and 1960s by segregationists who maintained that the federal government had no authority to mandate that they abide by Civil Rights laws.

Rights won through hard struggle

In early 1965, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., went to Selma, Ala., to expose the blatant discrimination against African Americans seeking to register to vote. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been working in Selma in voter registration campaigns two years prior to SCLC.

During the course of the movement in Alabama in 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a participant in a march in Marion, Ala., was shot to death by a state trooper. Jackson was attempting to defend his mother from assault by the law enforcement officer.

Outrage spread surrounding the killing of Jackson and led to the first attempt to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. On March 7, more than 600 people set out on the road to Montgomery, but they were stopped, gassed, beaten and driven back across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This incident was publicized internationally and sparked broader support for passage of the Voting Rights Act. After another failed attempt to march to Montgomery on March 9, both SCLC and SNCC kept up the pressure for weeks, eventually leading to a federal court ruling allowing the demonstration, as well as the federalizing of the state National Guard to provide “security” for the thousands who participated.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to introduce and rush through the Voting Rights Act, which was signed in August 1965. The Civil Rights struggle and the passage of the bill resulted in the election of thousands of African Americans and other people of color to various offices throughout the South and other regions of the U.S.

Mass struggle needed

Arguments that claim the enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed are contradicted by developments in recent years. Numerous states have restricted access to the ballot and limited the effectiveness of elections through voter identification laws and redistricting.

Efforts aimed at limiting voter participation and effectiveness will go forward at a more rapid rate in the aftermath of the recent ruling. Despite an African-American president, racism and national oppression are still very much in evidence in the U.S.

In the state of Michigan, an emergency manager law provides a pseudo-legal rationale for the removal of the authority of elected officials under the guise of a financial emergency. Even though African-American elected officials in the state have requested intervention by the Justice Department, no action on the part of the Obama administration has been taken.

Just as Civil Rights laws and some positive federal court decisions were won through mass actions by African Americans and their allies, the overthrow of these attacks on voting rights and affirmative action can only be brought about through collective efforts by the people. These attacks on bourgeois democratic rights will become even more widespread as the economic crisis for the working class within the U.S. becomes more pronounced, and the ruling class seeks a myriad of methods to divide and further exploit the workers and the oppressed.