The stirring film “Selma” ends with Dr. King leading civil rights marchers across the bridge and to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It will help a new generation of Americans appreciate that historic accomplishment.
But what should not be forgotten is that the passage of the Voting Rights Act wasn’t the end of the battle. The effort to suppress the rights of African-Americans to vote continued. Southern states and localities invented a range of techniques — from making voting and registration difficult to gerrymandering districts to get the right results. African-Americans made progress, but not without a fight.
Vital to the continuing fight was the Voting Rights Act, particularly Section 5, which gave the Department of Justice the right of pre-clearance of any substantial change in voting procedures or laws in states that had a history of racial suppression of the vote. But in the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, the five-person right-wing majority of the court ruled, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, that Section 5 was outmoded and unnecessary, and thus a violation of the Constitution. This breathtaking leap of judicial activism disabled the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
Immediately, Republicans across the country began to pass laws designed to constrict the vote, as well as elaborate gerrymanders designed to magnify the effect of white votes. New laws in 21 states made it harder to vote. New forms of government ID were required — in effect, a tax on those without them, largely elderly people of color. Restrictions were passed to make registration and voting harder, to cut off student participation. Voting hours were reduced and voting booths were cut and made less accessible, among other tactics. Republicans claimed that many of these measures were necessary to cut down on voter fraud but were unable to demonstrate that there was any voter fraud to worry about.
As President Obama said in April, “The stark and simple truth is this — the right to vote is threatened today — in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,”
And these laws are having the effect intended. In North Carolina’s tight Senate race in 2014, Republican Tom Tillis beat incumbent Kay Hagen by about 43,000 votes (1.7 percent of the vote). Tillis had ushered through the state legislature one of the harshest voter-suppression laws, eliminating seven days of early voting (and at least one Sunday of “get your souls to the polls” rallies at African-American churches), eliminating same-day registration, forcing voters to vote in their own precinct and more. 700,000 voters had voted in the now eliminated early seven-day window in 2012, 200,000 in the 2012 by-election. Some 100,000 voters, largely African-American, took advantage of same-day registration in 2012. The voters eliminated may well have exceeded the vote margin.
Similarly, Florida Gov. Rick Scott reversed his predecessor’s reforms that allowed former convicts who had served their time to regain the right to vote. That disenfranchised far more than Scott’s margin over his Democratic opponent. In Florida, one in three African-American men is permanently disenfranchised. This is the new Jim Crow on the march.
Making registration and voting easy and accessible to minorities, students, the elderly, the disabled and the working class isn’t hard. We know what works.
What we witness is simply a continuation of the battle that reached one of its turning points on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The Voting Rights Act was passed, but the opponents of equal rights never surrendered. They have continued to resist and obstruct. What the film “Selma” depicts is history, but it is also a call to action — for the struggle for even the basic right to vote in America is still not secure.