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“Bending Toward Justice” is a history of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the reasons for its necessary enactment.
Friday, May 3, 2013
Passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution made it illegal to abridge the right of a U.S. citizen to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
In 1965, the passage of the Voting Rights Act paved the way for making the enfranchisement guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment a reality in states that did not recognize the power of the federal government to regulate elections. The newly adopted law removed common obstacles such as poll taxes, residency and literacy requirements, and terrorist tactics — tactics employed in some states to prevent minorities (mostly blacks) from being able to vote.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to deliver a ruling in the case of Shelby County v. Holder . The case was brought by a county in Alabama that asserts that the federal government has no jurisdiction in determining how a locality manages voting and that Section 5 of the act should not have been extended by Congress.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires “preclearance” for changes in voting precincts in some states, including Virginia, where the voting rights of some citizens had been denied or severely curtailed prior to 1965.
University of Delaware history professor Gary May offers a history of the Voting Rights Act and the reasons for its necessary enactment in “Bending Toward Justice.”
May takes the reader on a long journey toward equality. On that journey, we meet many people whose names we associate with the struggle for racial justice in America: Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Walter Fauntroy, John Lewis and Rosa Parks . It is interesting to note that Parks, famous for having refused to relinquish her seat on a public bus in the 1950s, was active in voting rights issues in the early 1940s.
There are others who contributed to the campaign, but whose names became eclipsed when more famous civil rights activists joined the fray.
Those forgotten local heroes include Bernard Lafayette, who helped keep the movement alive in Selma, Ala., along with Amelia Boynton Robinson, J.L. Chestnut and James Forman .
May notes it is ironic that the inhumane treatment of civil rights activists at the hands of Birmingham’s “Bull” Connor (whose dogs attacking demonstrators was shown on national television news shows in the 1960s) and Selma’s Jim Clark (made notorious by the attacks on demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge) helped galvanize support for the Voting Rights Act. So in a sense, the people opposed to equality for blacks were responsible for having secured that equality.
May is concerned about the subtle campaign to deprive Americans of the voting rights, especially noting the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council and its late founder, Paul Weyrich .
ALEC has been working at the state level to enact legislation that will limit access to the polls by voters who oppose the group’s agenda. At the same time, ALEC is working to have the Voting Rights Act neutered by the Supreme Court.
In 1980, Weyrich said, “Many of our Christians … want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. … As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
May follows the string of attempts to prevent citizens from exercising their right to vote — attempts legislated at the state level by ALEC and its allies. All of these efforts were aimed at limiting votes from blacks, Hispanics, the elderly and students — all groups the Republican Party believed would vote for President Barack Obama and vote against Republican candidates.
May shows that there is irony in the success of the Voting Rights Act because it has engendered an opposition as fierce as the opposition to blacks voting in the 1960s, only this time instead of fire hoses, dogs and clubs, the opposition is using legislation to restrict voting rights.
He believes that these developments show a strong need to keep the Voting Rights Act in force.
The book ends on this note:
Protecting the right to vote “requires the courage and determination to fight for the gains that the extraordinary generations who came before us paid for in blood. Without a similar commitment today and tomorrow, history may well repeat itself.”
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