Forty-eight years after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Supreme Court is currently deliberating about the historic legislation’s enforcement provision, known as Section 5. It requires that any changes proposed by “covered jurisdictions” be approved by a federal three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., before being certified by the Justice Department.
This provision is being challenged by authorities in Shelby County, Ala., where election officials claim the law is no longer relevant. They say the South, where the struggle emerged that resulted in passage of the bill, has changed over the last five decades, making it no longer necessary.
The VRA was the result of a prolonged mass struggle centered in Alabama, where a protracted voting rights campaign began in 1963 that culminated in the march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965.
On March 7, 600 African Americans attempting to march to Montgomery, the state capital, were halted, beaten, teargassed and driven back across Selma’s Edmond Pettus Bridge. Dozens were injured, and the brutality of Alabama state police and Dallas County sheriff’s deputies was captured by the national media. It embarrassed the federal government and outraged African Americans and their allies throughout the South and across the United States.
Some 2,000 people led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy made a second attempt to cross the bridge on March 9. It also was halted by state police.
The leaders of the second attempted march then turned the crowd around and headed back to Brown’s Chapel in Selma. They awaited a decision by the federal district court on whether they had a constitutional right to march, which had been denied by Gov. George Wallace.
After the second attempt, three clergy members from various northern cities were attacked by white hoodlums in Selma. Rev. James Reeb was clubbed and later died from his injuries.
Eventually, the U.S. District Court granted an order to conduct the march, and President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard to provide security for the demonstrators. Tens of thousands traveled to the area from around the region and the country.
The marchers arrived in Montgomery safely on March 25. But in the aftermath of the demonstration, the Ku Klux Klan murdered a Detroit white woman, Viola Liuzzo, while she was transporting activists. It was revealed years later that FBI informant Gary Rowe was in the vehicle from which the shots were fired killing Liuzzo, who was married to a Teamster leader.
Section 5 debated before Supreme Court
The recent challenge to the Voting Rights Act was debated before the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 27. There has been no ruling yet, but remarks by several of the justices were alarming.
In particular, Justice Antonin Scalia commented during the arguments that the continued existence of the enforcement provision constituted “the perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
This remark drew the ire of millions across the U.S. Scalia also said that Congress was cowed in 2006 into re-authorizing the Voting Rights Act.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who at the time of the Selma-to-Montgomery march was chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was severely beaten by Alabama cops on March 7, expressed shock and dismay at Scalia’s remarks. Justice Sonya Sotomayor, appointed by President Barack Obama and the only Puerto Rican on the Supreme Court, challenged Scalia’s comments.
The elimination of Section 5 would leave the Voting Rights Act virtually meaningless. Already numerous voting districts have been allowed to opt out of the provision.
If the Supreme Court decides in favor of Shelby County, “the state of Alabama will be able to change its voting laws without first getting approval of the Department of Justice. In addition to implementing strict new voter ID laws, Alabama would be free to unilaterally create a variety of barriers to voting rights that it could claim are not discriminatory against Black voters, despite appearances to the contrary.” (allvoices.com, Feb. 25)
That article notes that in Florida during 2012, “Gov. Rick Scott decided to eliminate early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, which is traditionally the day African-American churchgoers board ‘Souls to the Polls’ buses that take them to vote.” This was a deliberate effort to target and suppress the African-American vote.
Getting rid of Section 5 would enable lawmakers to limit or end early voting hours, pass strict voter ID laws and redraw congressional district lines.
Process well underway in Michigan
The city of Detroit and the entire state of Michigan already have legislation denying voting rights to nearly half the African-American population. Passage of Public Act 4 by a majority of extreme right-wing Republican state legislators in 2011 enabled Gov. Rick Snyder to impose what is called “emergency management” on municipalities.
But after a petition campaign in 2012 put this issue on the ballot, it was defeated. But the right-wing State House and Senate subsequently passed another bill, along with such anti-union legislation as right-to-work, that nullified the vote of the people of the state.
Emergency managers have already been appointed in Michigan in such African-American cities as Benton Harbor, Flint, Highland Park and Ecorse.
In Detroit, the public school system was placed under emergency management by former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. On March 1, Snyder declared Detroit to be in a “financial emergency,” almost ensuring that an emergency manager will be appointed over the entire city, which is more than 85 percent African American.
The appointment of an emergency manager would keep Detroit’s residents from being able to elect officials with legislative and administrative authority. The rationale given for these actions is the city’s economic crisis, which was created by predatory mortgage and municipal bond lending of the banks and rating agencies.
Thus, in effect, the Voting Rights Act has already being eliminated in Michigan. However, attempts are underway to challenge Snyder’s efforts.
The banks are saying that Detroit is obligated to pay over $14 billion in long-term debt. The Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs has called for a halt to the payment of debt service on what it describes as fraudulent loans and bond issues.
The coalition filed suit Feb. 14 under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain contracts and other documents related to these loans and bond issues. So far the city of Detroit has not responded by turning over the documents.
The challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act reflects the ongoing racism and national oppression in the U.S. Social justice, civil rights and all progressive organizations must recognize these moves for what they are: an attempt to set back the clock in order to better facilitate the oppression and exploitation of people of color and all workers. n