Black Votes Matter… but not in Alabama

Posted on October 21, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Back in June 2013, we posted about the Supreme Court decision that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. You can read that here; in this post, we focus on the inevitable evil that is beginning to come of that decision.

Basically, the SC decision removed a restriction that had been placed on states with the worst records of preventing black Americans from voting: that restriction said that if one of those states wanted to change anything about its voting laws, those changes had to be approved by the federal government. This stopped states from passing new laws that kept black Americans from voting.

And now we see the first fruit of removing that restriction: Alabama first made a government-issued ID mandatory for voting, and has now shut down 31 DMV locations—in majority-black counties.

As the report in The Nation says,

The state is shuttering DMV offices in eight of the 10 counties with the highest concentration of black voters. Selma will still have a DMV office but virtually all of the surrounding Black Belt counties will not. “Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed,” writes John Archibald of the Birmingham News. “The harm is inflicted disproportionately on voters who happen to be black, and poor, in sparsely populated areas.”

Alabama describes the closings as a cost-saving measure, but the impact has clear racial and political overtones. Writes Archibald:

“Look at the 15 counties that voted for President Barack Obama in the last presidential election. The state just decided to close driver license offices in 53 percent of them.

“Look at the five counties that voted most solidly Democratic? Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes and Bullock counties all had their driver license offices closed.

“Look at the 10 that voted most solidly for Obama? Of those, eight—again all but Dallas and the state capital of Montgomery—had their offices closed.”

This is the very type of voting change–one that disproportionately burdens African-American voters–that would have been challenged under Section 5 of the VRA, which the Supreme Court rendered inoperative. “The voices of our most vulnerable citizens have been silenced by a decision to close 31 license facilities in Alabama. #RestoreTheVOTE,” tweeted Congresswoman Terri Sewell from Selma.

Congresswoman Sewell is calling on the federal Department of Justice to investigate, but what can it do? Its power to suspend any violation of Americans’ constitutional right to vote has been stripped away by the Shelby decision.

As John Archibald (quoted above) says in an op-ed,

It’s not just a civil rights violation. It is not just a public relations nightmare. It is not just an invitation for worldwide scorn and an alarm bell to the Justice Department. It is an affront to the very notion of justice in a nation where one man one vote is as precious as oxygen. It is a slap in the face to all who believe the stuff we teach the kids about how all are created equal.

But Alabama Secy of State John Merrill says there’s no problem:

Secretary of State John Merrill, Alabama’s chief election official, said late Wednesday that the state’s closing of 31 county driver’s license offices won’t leave residents without a place to get the required I.D. card to vote.

…Merrill said state election officials “will issue (photo voter I.D. cards) on our own” at county Board of Registrars offices. “Every county has a Board of Registrars,” he said.

…Merrill said his office will have brought its mobile I.D. van to every county in Alabama by Oct. 31. He said the van will return to counties when requested. “If they can’t go to the board of registrars, we’ll bring a mobile crew down there,” Merrill said.

…One must ask why Alabama should have to use mobile vans to register people when it already had DMVs in place to do so? Mobilizing a fleet of “mobile ID vans” to replace the DMVs you shut down is like breaking your car window so you can tape a plastic garbage bag over it and then vaunt your great “fix”.

It seems clear that this is a bold, open blow against civil rights in Alabama, and like attacks on immigrants, these moves tend to spread from state to state; we fear Alabama will not be the last to decide it doesn’t have to let black citizens vote. Keep an eye on your own state, and if you like, protest the Alabama move at #RestoretheVOTE.

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The American Promise of Johnson’s We Shall Overcome speech

Posted on May 1, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

As we enter part 6, the last post in our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, we look at the context of the speech—how it was made, delivered, and received.

President Johnson had not planned to give the speech at all; he was sending his Voting Rights Act bill to Congress and usually when presidents send a bill to Congress they attach a brief message to it and that’s all. Few presidents will make a public speech to Congress urging the passage of a pending bill because a) members of Congress don’t like being pressured publicly to pass things, and b) if the bill is not passed, then the president loses some clout. But at the last moment—the day before the speech was given—Johnson decided this particular bill needed more than a note. We have applauded speechwriter Richard Goodwin for drafting the We Shall Overcome speech in record time, working overnight on the 14th/15th, with Johnson’s direct order to use “every ounce of moral persuasion the Presidency had… with no hedging, no equivocation”. Goodwin delivered on that request. The actual title of the speech was “The American Promise”, but like so many things in U.S. history and culture it became known by a different name—Johnson’s use of the dynamic civil rights promise “We Shall Overcome” destined the speech to be known by that name.

The genius of the speech, and of Johnson’s delivery, lies in its ability to make voting rights for black Americans personal for all Americans. As Americans, they inherited a mission, and if they refused to carry out that mission, they were betraying their country. This was at the very start of some public doubt about the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, when calling on people to fight for their country was beginning to ring hollow, but here was a forum where everyone could be on board—or, at least refusing to get on board was much more difficult. If Americans weren’t sure they were fighting for liberty and justice in Vietnam, they could be very sure they were fighting for it at home, in the form of voting equality. This was a goal that suited both the radical agenda of social revolutionaries and the more square patriotic agenda of their elders. It even made “summoning into convocation all the majesty of this great government” (not something many average Americans, let alone hippies, could have said without blushing) seem not only necessary, but just and commendable and faith-inspiring.

By calling on the nation to fulfill its covenant with God and man, Johnson made passive acceptance of racial discrimination impossible and a kind of passive action to end it possible: that is, Southern Congressmen who did not want to vote for civil rights legislation could do it with the excuse to their constituents that the president had made it impossible not to, that the tide had turned, and that everyone was going to have to find a new way of getting around. No one likes it, they might say, but that’s how it has to be now. Appealing to the ideal of America itself, rather than existing constitutional amendments that some might say should be overturned, forced opponents of civil rights into the untenable position of arguing against America itself, of betraying the nation’s identity, of being un-American.

Reaction to the speech was very positive and action was swift. As Garth Pauley puts it in his book LBJ’s America: the 1965 Voting Rights Address:

In their coverage of his speech, many journalists lauded the president for invoking and affirming “the most sacred and deeply held convictions of a nation,” which brought “the present chapter of the struggle for human rights into proper perspective.” Citizens echoed these sentiments in their letters and telegrams to the White House. And when editorialists urged swift passage of the president’s bill, their appeals employed the language of Johnson’s narrative: The New York Times even suggested passage was a foregone conclusion because a “people that has responded unflinchingly to every trial of national purpose . . . will not fail this test.” Moreover, following President Johnson’s speech, members of Congress deliberated voting rights legislation using the language of America’s destiny, promise, and purpose. Senators and congressmen claimed that the nation must “make good on its promise… [to] fulfill the revolutionary dream of freedom and equality for all Americans” by “passing a bill which [sic] fully insures that every American… has the right to vote”—which will represent a step “along this nation’s honored march toward further fulfillment of our traditional goals of equal opportunity and equal treatment.” Congress indeed passed the final voting rights bill less than five months after Johnson’s speech. The president signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, emphasizing at the signing ceremony that America had righted a historical wrong, enacted its sacred principles, confirmed its promise, and now would endeavor to “fulfill the rights that we now secure.”

Pauley goes on to speculate about the ability of a president today to refer to and rely on a shared moral high ground in America to gather support for a bill, and it’s a thoughtful note to end this series on:

Finding a shared moral language out of which a president can fashion a persuasive appeal is difficult. President Johnson effectively grounded his appeals in a potent narrative that focused on public morality–his listeners’ civic duty to keep and fulfill the sacred American Promise. But as the citizenry continues to become more religiously and culturally diverse, less schooled in the narratives of the nation’s history, more aware of how such narratives can be used to justify depraved causes as well as honorable ones, and perhaps less influenced by the moral authority of the presidency, presidents may find it especially tricky to build moral consensus through oratory. Consider this problem from a perspective afforded by studying Johnson’s speech. He used oratory to help secure the significant public good of equal voting rights, primarily by appealing to the American Promise–of which the Constitution is one expression–rather than the Constitution itself. But could Johnson have crafted such a stirring, persuasive appeal on the basis of constitutional guarantees alone? Would his listeners have found it as moving, meaningful, and motivational? Would we find it as eloquent today?

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The best of times, the worst of times: Supreme Court rulings on the Voting Rights Act and gay marriage

Posted on June 26, 2013. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

It’s the time of year when Supreme Court rulings come one after another; this year we have a very mixed bag. The principles of liberty and justice for all were violated by yesterday’s ruling striking down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. They were upheld by today’s ruling striking down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

We will post at more length on both rulings shortly, as we all begin to grapple once again with the ups and downs of participating in the always ongoing, never finished fight against human nature and us v. them that is the price and privilege of being citizens of the United States.

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The Voting Rights Act under attack

Posted on March 11, 2013. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , |

The Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments to strike down sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This has been a top news story, particularly after Justice Antonin Scalia called the VRA itself (not just the sections in question) a “racial entitlement”. Let’s look at the VRA of 1965 and the debate over it in the Court.

The VRA was passed in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s civil rights legislation. The U.S. Department of Justice website describes it this way: “Pursuant to the Act, the Voting Section undertakes investigations and litigation throughout the United States and its territories, conducts administrative review of changes in voting practices and procedures in certain jurisdictions, and monitors elections in various parts of the country.” This means that voting procedures anywhere in the U.S. can be reviewed, especially when those procedures are changed, and that elections can be monitored to make sure they are fair. Notice the language goes from the entire U.S. and its territories to “certain jurisdictions”—this was originally directed at the southern states, where repression of black voters was well-documented. The Act does not say “southern states” because its authors knew that while it was the south that had a demonstrable problem with fair elections in 1965, the problem could crop up anywhere else at any time. So wherever unfair elections were discovered, those “certain jurisdictions” would come under scrutiny.

Sections 2, 4 and 5 of the Act are the most critical. Section 2 forbids race discrimination in poll worker hiring, voter registration, and redistricting plans. Section 4 sets out the criteria for determining when a jurisdiction is violating fair elections and voting. And Section 5 states that once your state or territory has been designated as problematic and unfair in its voting and election process, any change with respect to voting there can’t be legally enforced until it’s been reviewed by the U.S. District Court or Attorney General. Any jurisdiction with a proven history of voting discrimination had to prove that the change being proposed is not discriminatory—not just another attempt to prevent minorities from voting freely. The jurisdiction has to prove the absence of racial discrimination, and if it can’t, the proposed change cannot be made law. If the suspect jurisdiction can prove that it has gone 10 years without any voter discrimination, it is no longer subject to Section 5.

The key word in all this, of course, is proof. The suspect locale has to prove it is not discriminatory. This represents a rejection of the federal government’s traditional tactic, post-Reconstruction, of listening to southern political leaders say everything was just fine and there was no threatening or lynching of black voters and saying, Great—that’s good news.

The VRA as a whole has been re-approved by Congress several times, most recently in 2006, when it passed by a vote of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. At that time, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the VRA was “an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy.”

But in the summer of 2012, Shelby County, Georgia, challenged the 2006 reauthorization, saying that Congress had exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and violated the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution. To quote from SCOTUS Blog:

“…lawyer Bert Rein, representing Shelby County in its challenge to the statute… began by reminding the Court of its 2009 decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utilities District No. 1 v. Holder, in which it acknowledged that “the South had changed” and “questioned whether current remedial needs justified” the costs – both financial and to the jurisdictions’ autonomy – of the pre-clearance requirement.  But Justice Sonia Sotomayor quickly jumped in, observing that even if the South as a whole has changed, Shelby County itself has not.  Because Shelby County’s track record of discrimination at the polls remains poor, she suggested, it ‘may be the wrong party bringing this’ case.”

In short, Shelby County said the VRA was outdated and permanently labeled the south as racist, violating the south’s right to equal protection and due process under the law. Justice Sotomayor said this was not about the past but about the present, as Shelby County could not prove it was not discriminatory at the moment, in 2012. Between 1984 and 2010, Shelby County underwent a shift from majority Democratic to Republican, and in 2010 100% of all elected county officials were Republican. The county has not proved that this is the result of the free will of all voters, regardless of race, and not election fraud or voter intimidation, and so it must remain subject to Section 5 of the VRA.

The Court began hearing arguments in the case on February 27, 2013. This was the day Justice Scalia made his controversial claim that Section 5 was a “racial entitlement”, but his 2006 run-up to that statement is even more illustrative of how he sees the VRA:

“The comment came as part of a larger riff on a comment Scalia made the last time the landmark voting law was before the justices. Noting the fact that the Voting Rights Act reauthorization passed 98-0 when it was before the Senate in 2006, Scalia claimed four years ago that this unopposed vote actually undermines the law: ‘The Israeli supreme court, the Sanhedrin, used to have a rule that if the death penalty was pronounced unanimously, it was invalid, because there must be something wrong there.’

“That was an unusual comment when it was made, but Scalia’s expansion on it today raises concerns that his suspicion of the Act is rooted much more in racial resentment than in a general distrust of unanimous votes. Scalia noted when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965, it passed over 19 dissenters. In subsequent reauthorizations, the number of dissenters diminished, until it passed the Senate without dissent seven years ago. Scalia’s comments suggested that this occurred, not because of a growing national consensus that racial disenfranchisement is unacceptable, but because lawmakers are too afraid to be tarred as racists. His inflammatory claim that the Voting Rights Act is a ‘perpetuation of racial entitlement’ came close to the end of a long statement on why he found a landmark law preventing race discrimination in voting to be suspicious.” [our italics]

Here is Scalia’s 2013 statement: “[The VRA was] reenacted 5 years later, again for a 5-year term. Double-digits against it in the Senate. Then it was reenacted for 7 years. Single digits against it. Then enacted for 25 years, 8 Senate votes against it. And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same. Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

Scalia’s point, and that of most of the VRA’s opponents, is that the Act is no longer necessary, for two main reasons: a) the south isn’t racist anymore; b) other regions are racist but not being subjected to the Act. As we’ve seen, the Act is not written specifically for the south, but for any jurisdiction, state, or region that has provable voter repression and unfair elections. Yes, repressive new voting laws in northern and western states, usually strict voter ID laws, should be investigated as well… yet how can they be if the VRA is revoked? If the complaint is that all other regions of the nation should be equally suspect of racial discrimination in elections and should be punished for that, how can they be punished if the Act making that illegal is taken away?

What the push to revoke Section 5 and, one can’t help believing, the VRA as a whole, reveals is not a rejection of Civil War-era prejudice against the south but the very modern push to get rid of “big government”. Anti-VRA activists don’t want the DoJ involved in regulating and investigating state voting procedures. They want voting procedures to be regulated by the states, with no federal oversight, which is exactly the situation that made the VRA so necessary, when states violating fair elections were allowed to do that because there was no federal law to stop them. States with a history of racial discrimination in voting—whether it goes back to 1865 or started in 2012—have to be subject to federal oversight because they will not change their own laws.

We’re not sure if members of Congress voted to re-authorize the VRA in 2006 because they were afraid to be labeled as racist if they didn’t; we’re not sure that’s a bad thing. One would hope that being racist would always be a red flag in the United States, and something politicians would want to avoid. But we do know that there is a new trend in play, in which laws that have outlawed discrimination against minority populations have been called reverse discrimination, or revoked because they were successful. The latter is like saying, “Why do you take pills for your high blood pressure? You haven’t had high blood pressure in years. Why are you wasting all that money taking medicine for something you don’t have?” And if one replies, Well, if I didn’t take the pills my high blood pressure would come back, so the pills are preventive, the other party would say “So you’re paying good money not to fix a real problem, but to make sure a problem doesn’t happen? What evidence do you have that the problem might ever happen?” And one might say, My history of high blood pressure. And the arguer would say, dismissively, “History! You’ve got to respond to conditions as they are today, not spend money based on what happened in the past.”

But we would hold that a history—no matter how long or how short—of racial discrimination is a red flag, and needs to subjected to federal investigation in the present, to ensure the future. The fact that states all over the nation are regularly introducing discriminatory voting laws proves that we need the VRA, and need it to be more stringently enforced than ever, not that it’s time to realize that the south isn’t racist and the government’s too big and everything is just fine with voting in the U.S., and all the other claims being made in the Court and the nation as we follow this case.

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