Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Voting Rights and the Supreme Court

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord
shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31

Yesterday the Supreme Court eviscerated the most important part of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. They eliminated the provision requiring states and counties with a history of discrimination to get pre-approval from the Justice Department before implementing changes in voting rights laws. Before the day was done, lawmakers in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas rushed to implement laws that will make it harder for African Americans to vote.

In 2006 when Congress extended the Voting Rights Act, the Senate passed it unanimously and the House had only 33 dissenting votes. President Bush signed the measure and gave a speech reminding all Americans that this was one of the most important bulwarks of our democracy.

Without the requirement for pre-approval, states can pass and implement restrictive laws which can only be challenged after the fact. And those challenges would typically work their way through the court system after one or more election cycles had already gone by. If the court did not like the way that states and counties were identified, then it would be better to require pre-approval for every change to voting requirements in every state.

I find myself coming back to Dr. King’s famous declaration of hope, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King adapted the phrase from the great 19th century abolitionist and preacher, Theodore Parker. King made that affirmation of faith in a speech given on March 25, 1965, in Montgomery, Alabama, at the conclusion of a march from Selma. The whole campaign was “centered around the right to vote.”

The Civil Rights movement was not aimed at achieving “equality” as an abstract concept; it was aimed at achieving equality as a practical reality. Achieving equality as a practical reality required laws. Voting was (and is) critical to changing laws.

In an impassioned dissent from the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared, "The Voting Rights Act became one of the most consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative power in our Nation's history." She added, "Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made."

Later this summer, when we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, we will hear a great deal about equality as an abstract intellectual concept. But Dr. King was not killed, or jailed, or reviled, because of an abstract concept. He was killed because he led a movement that was changing America.

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