Now that the Voting Rights Act renewal has been temporarily derailed in the House of Representatives, it's worth taking a moment to consider the baggage that this act has taken on over the years and what it has become today.
The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965, is, of course, one of the crown jewels of the civil rights movement. Just mention it and one conjures up images of the great movement. The legislation to reauthorize the act is even called the Fannie Lou Hammer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006.
The key original point of the Voting Rights Act was to put teeth into the 15th Amendment that was passed in 1870 after the Civil War. That amendment states, simply enough, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
By addressing commonplace discrimination against blacks at the polls, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, the Voting Rights Act tried to reconcile the realities on the ground with the words of the 15th Amendment. No citizen should be deprived of his or her franchise to vote because of race.
President Johnson's words when he signed the Act were: " ...There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem ... Every American citizen must have the right to vote ..." The core provisions of the Voting Rights Act which prohibited the various obstacles interfering with the right of blacks to vote were enacted permanently. Reauthorization is needed for the temporary measures that were included to assure proper implementation of the law in what was then a hostile environment.
Over time, as these provisions have been reauthorized, and the act subject to amendment and interpretation, quite a new reality has emerged.
In expressing dismay the other day about the House delay on the reauthorization vote, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia observed, "After all, it was during the middle of the last census that the Georgia state Legislature authored a redistricting plan that severely diluted the power of the African American vote."
We have traveled a long and winding road since 1965. Where once the objective was to protect individual black voters, now we have an objective of protecting the "African American vote."
We now have provisions to protect so-called "majority minority" districts and, in effect, the Voting Rights Act has become a vehicle for justifying what amounts to racial gerrymandering.