As a result, the country moves closer to making real for African Americans those “self-evident” truths about equality in the Declaration of Independence.
Southern state legislatures turn the clock back, and the Supreme Court disingenuously goes along.
The year was 1896. The case was Plessy v. Ferguson.
Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act, mirrors the country’s second major civil rights retreat.
I grew up in border state Kentucky, where I still live. The state didn’t have a law that kept blacks from voting. But Jim Crow segregation was the law and the social order.
I remember the civil rights movement of the 1960s that led to landmark federal anti-discrimination laws that included the Voting Rights Act. I was sure that the Jim Crow Era was gone and that there could be no regress on civil rights.
History, my college major, taught me I was wrong. So has the Shelby ruling.
During the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, our country also made unprecedented civil rights strides. Amendments to the constitution – championed by the Republican Party – ended the last vestiges of slavery, made African Americans citizens and extended the vote to blacks.
Nonetheless, the Jim Crow Era began a decade or so after Reconstruction. In the old Confederacy, white supremacist, Democratic-majority legislatures passed laws that segregated African Americans unequally from white society and stripped the ballot from blacks.
In Plessy, the court ruled 8-1 that segregation was constitutional as long as it was “separate but equal.” Republican presidents had nominated six of the associate justices.
The lone dissenter in Plessy was Kentuckian John Marshall Harlan, also a Republican nominee. He said, in effect, that separate but equal was really separate and unequal.
In any event, the majority in Plessy knowingly left the South free to treat African American as second-class citizens. Uncle Sam looked the other way while whites — with little or no fear of arrest or punishment — burned out, beat and murdered blacks who protested injustice.
The high court voted 5-4 in Shelby . The chief justice and four associates, all Republican presidential nominees, matched the Plessy majority in disingenuousness.
They stuck down the key provision of the Voting Rights Act – a requirement that certain states, mostly Southern, with a history of discrimination against minority voters had to clear changes in their voter laws with the federal government.
Republican state legislatures, mainly in the South, have swung behind laws calculated to discourage minority voting such as by requiring special voter IDs and by curbing early voting.
The Republicans protest that their only motive is to “clean up voter fraud.” Voter fraud is almost nonexistent, and they know it.
The GOP is using same sort of fakery white supremacist Democrats used when they disfranchised blacks with poll taxes, property requirements for voting and grandfather laws, all the while claiming such devices weren’t racially motivated.
The GOP isn’t fooling anybody. Their real aim is to reduce the black vote – overwhelmingly Democratic — just as the Southern Democrats did in the Plessy era, when almost all African Americans were Republicans.
In justifying their ruling in Shelby, the GOP jurists said black voting has greatly increased in the South since the 60s. Thus, they added, the provision they invalidated was no longer needed as it was written.
Many more African Americans are casting ballots — and holding office — in the South, but largely because of the very part of the law the court struck down. “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg aptly observed in her dissenting opinion.
Too, the rise of voter suppression laws — more are doubtless on the way — is solid evidence that the provision is still needed as it is.
At the same time, the GOP justices said Congress could come up with a new plan of federal oversight and apply it where lawmakers suspect there is discrimination against minority voters.
Those states would almost certainly be in Dixie, now the GOP heartland.
So please spare me the high school civics textbook stuff about the Supreme Court being insulated from party politics. These Republican justices know hogs will fly before their party’s House majority will permit any new plan. At the same time, they are aware that the Senate has enough Republicans to filibuster to death any such plan coming from their end of the Capitol.
In any event, for about a hundred years after the Civil War, almost all African Americans, most of whom lived in the South, rallied to the GOP – the party of “ Lincoln and Liberty.” The Democrats – the white man’s party — strove to keep them from voting.
In the 1960s, Northern and Western Democrats – albeit led by a Southern president, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas — championed landmark federal legislation aimed at ending Jim Crow racial injustice. Consequently, thousands of African Americans switched to the Democrats – a trend that began under FDR whose New Deal programs also benefited blacks.
Democrats and Republicans teamed up to pass a series of historic civil rights bills including, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act. But after the 1960s, the GOP heeled hard right.
The party of Ike, Rocky, Ed Brooke, Jake Javits, Cliff Case, Mac Mathias and Kentucky’s John Sherman Cooper ultimately morphed into the party of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, who helped lead the white South’s near wholesale abandonment of the Democrats for the GOP.
On Richard Nixon’s watch, the Republican bigwigs adopted the “Southern Strategy” to win over white Southern Democrats who hated to see Jim Crow go. The GOP forsook its historic civil rights activism and became the “states rights” party, a process accelerated by Ronald Reagan.
Ultimately, the white South turned Republican Red. The GOP largely became the white folks’ party, even in the North. (More than a few moderate and liberal Yankee Republicans became Democrats.)
So just as Jim Crow laws were the Southern Democrats’ method of evading the 14th and 15th amendments — the former extended citizenship to African Americans and the latter made it illegal to deny anyone the vote based on race — the minority voter suppression laws are the GOP’s end run around the Voting Rights Act. And Republican Supreme Court majorities blessed both blatant ruses.
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