On March 16, 1965, a week after police beat civil rights protesters in Selma, Alabama, in a day remembered as “Bloody Sunday,” President Lyndon Johnson urged Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, saying “the time for justice has come.”
As early as tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court may rule that the aims of justice have been met.
Such a decision would mean that the court found the ills of racism that Johnson decried have been cured, and that special protections are no longer needed in an era when voters have made Barack Obama the first black president and African Americans turned out to cast ballots at a higher rate than whites in the 2012 election.
After Johnson spoke, the issue of discrimination and violence in the U.S. would only get worse, even with the Texan’s appeal to the nation “as a man whose roots go deeply into southern soil.”
“This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller,” Johnson told lawmakers assembled in the U.S. Capitol. “These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.”
Just as Chief Justice Earl Warren had presided over an activist court that created legal protections and opportunities for minorities, the nine-member court led by Chief Justice John Roberts may decide that American society has evolved to the point that they aren’t necessary.
The court is weighing the fate of the law’s requirement that all or parts of 15 states get federal “pre-clearance” before making any change to their voting rules. Among the states covered by the provision, known as Section 5, are those with the deepest history of racial discrimination -- Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia and Texas. A separate section of the law, which allows for lawsuits to be brought after changes have been made, isn’t affected.
Alabama, which is challenging the act, said in its brief that the law’s requirements are too costly and there is no longer “the widespread and ingenious voter discrimination” that once made pre-clearance an appropriate remedy.
Lawyers for the state also said that the “racial gap in voter registration and turnout is lower in the states originally covered by Section 5 than it is nationwide.”
The Obama administration last year used the pre-clearance requirement to stop Republican-backed voter-identification laws in Texas and South Carolina. Several other states have passed voter identification laws that Hispanics say are intended to keep them from casting ballots. Last week the Supreme Court threw out an Arizona law that required evidence of citizenship when people register to vote.
When Johnson proposed the voting act, blacks in the South were often denied the right to vote after failing to answer questions such as whether they could recite verbatim the works of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or name the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“There is no Negro problem,” Johnson said. “There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem.”
The need to grant all Americans equal access to the ballot, Johnson said, was brought into relief by the violence in Selma, which he likened to Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts cities where battles ignited the American Revolutionary War, and Appomattox, the Virginia site of the Civil War surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s forces to the Union.
While acknowledging that other aspects of the civil rights movement were “very complex and most difficult,” Johnson said that “there can and should be no argument” about the right to vote. “Our mission is at once the oldest and most basic of this country,” Johnson told lawmakers, “to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.”
Johnson was able to push the Voting Rights Act through Congress, even with the resistance of his fellow Democrats from southern states, and he signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965.
It was the culmination of a broader strategic plan that Johnson used to win passage. One of his tactics was to work with the Reverend Martin Luther King, a civil rights leader, to sway public opinion. Two months before his address to Congress, Johnson had a phone call with King to talk political strategy.
“I think it is very important not to say that we are doing this or not doing this because it’s Negroes or whites but we take the position that every person born in this country when he reaches a certain age that he has a right to vote just like he has a right to fight,” Johnson said, according to a recording at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
He went on to tell King that he thought the battle should be framed as one of “equality for all” rather than one seeking special privilege and urged King to find stark examples of discrimination “where one man’s got to memorize Longfellow, whether he’s got to quote the first 10 amendments” and then to “repeat and repeat and repeat” that example to the point that “pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say that’s not right, that’s not fair.”
Johnson told King he would “shove through” the measure and that it would be seen as “the greatest achievement of my administration.” He succeeded, even with three times as many Democrats as Republicans voting against the bill.
Since the act became law, Congress has extended it four times, most recently in 2006, by a unanimous vote in the U.S. Senate and a 390-33 vote in the U.S. House.
Congress found that “40 years has not been a sufficient amount of time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination following nearly 100 years of disregard for the 15th Amendment,” according to the Justice Department’s brief.
“Section 5’s burdens are justified by current needs, as demonstrated by the extensive record Congress amassed of widespread and persistent racial discrimination in voting in covered jurisdictions,” the Justice Department brief said.
Records show that in 2012 the department obtained favorable judgments in four different cases under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Texas, South Carolina and Florida. In fiscal year 2012, the department said it received 1,454 redistricting plans from the covered states and 6,731 submissions for review.
“To be sure, progress has been made in the last 50 years, much of it as a direct result of Section 5, and it is true that we are now a very different nation,” Justice Department lawyers wrote. “In 2006, however, Congress made the considered judgment that there remains considerable work to do and that Section 5 remains essential to doing it.”