Like everything else in our polarized age, reaction to the Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder divided sharply along political lines. The court held Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, effectively lifting the burden on certain states to get federal approval before making any change to their election procedures. Predictably, conservatives and liberals clashed over whether the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts got the constitutional law right.
But I was struck less by the legal arguments than by the angry denial on the left, especially among minorities, that the ingrained racial disenfranchisement the Voting Rights Act was enacted to eradicate is dead and buried. The defeat of Jim Crow is one of the great progressive triumphs of American history. But to hear the outraged critics, you'd think the court had just thrown the door open to a revival of poll taxes and literacy tests. Worse, you'd think white Americans were eager to revive them.
It saddened me to hear an emotional John Lewis, who was on the front lines of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s and is now a congressman from Georgia, blast the court for plunging "a dagger" into black political emancipation. "Voting rights have been given in this country and they have been taken away," he said. The gains made by freed slaves during Reconstruction "were erased in a few short years." Lewis is sure it could happen again.