The Voting Rights Act

Posted: Feb 17, 2005 12:00 AM

The forty years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 have turned this country on its axis. Largely because elected officials suddenly found themselves staring down the loaded barrel of the black ballot. 

Those elected officials who maintained their office by preaching racial segregation, were forced to change their tune.  The example of Alabama Governor George ?Curly? Wallace is illuminating: Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, he was often hard at work capitalizing off racial tensions. With the fist shaking fury of William Jennings Bryant, he exclaimed in his 1963 inaugural address, ?Segregation now!  Segregation tomorrow!  Segregation forever!? After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, he could be seen fawning all over the black community, evincing evangelical zeal in the crowning of a black beauty Queen.

Wallace changed his tune because his career depended upon it. In a Democracy, politicians derive their legitimacy from the will of the electorate. Giving the black community a voice in that process pushed their collective wants and needs into the mainstream. 

Otherwise stated, giving black Americans the right to vote made the government accountable to their needs.

This, in turn, ensured that the decisions to desegregate would be backed by the Federal government?and if need be, the 82nd airborne.  As early as 1957, President Eisenhower was forced to send Federal Troops to Arkansas to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock High School. It was the first time since the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction that federal troops had been sent to the South to assist the black community. Subsequently, the Supreme Court solidified the right to vote by forbidding the white primary, grandfather clauses and racial gerrymandering in national, state, or local elections.  

The result was an unprecedented access to political power for black America.  The number of black elected officials skyrocketed. A wave of black governors took office in Virginia, New York City, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other major cities across the country.  Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court. Clarence Thomas followed in his footsteps.  Today, every time the president makes a foreign policy decision, he is advised by Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

Forty years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we have become a stronger union. Still, one still must ask: how can the black the vote can be best employed now? A good place to start would be to stop ghettoizing the black vote within the Democratic Party and begin building strong coalitions with Republicans around shared values. The problem is that the black vote has signed a loyalty oath to the Democratic party. At least one result is that the Democrats can take their vote for granted. Conversely, the Republicans may chalk the black vote up to a lost cause, and chose to focus their outreach elsewhere. In short, by voting as a block for the Democrats, the black populace has given away the bartering power that comes with their vote, and made themselves the easiest group for both parties to take for granted.

This is at least somewhat surprising given that blacks traditionally poll conservative. Furthermore, the Republican party is ripe for outreach. The burgeoning class of moderate Republicans, including fiscal conservatives like former New Jersey Governor and EPA commissioner Christine Todd Whitman, and former New York Mayor Rudy Guliani are searching for allies.  They would most likely welcome participation by blacks who could join them on the basis of shared economic and social values, such as the environment and lower taxes, plus an emphasis on small business and entrepreneurship.  That alliance could also resist the push of the moral majority to go overboard in repealing civil liberties. The above-mentioned is just one of many possible scenarios for regaining the respect of the black vote in American politics. 

The right to vote will continue to wither in influence if it is just given away to the Democrats. It will simply be taken for granted if politicians know that all they have to do is play the race card to get blacks to the polls.  Blacks will be derided as Pavlovian dogs in back-room meetings.  The savior from this degradation is independent intellectual and political thinking.  That will win both self-respect and the respect of others.