Restore the Voting Rights Act, by Marc H. Morial
7/30/2020, 6 p.m.
“Although the court did not deny that voter discrimination still exists, it gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law. Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote. I want to say to them, ‘Come and walk in my shoes.’” — Congressman John Lewis reacting to the U.S Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013.
For those of us whose work is focused on racial justice and voting rights, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, which gutted the federal Voting Rights Act, felt like a punch to the gut.
For Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, it can only have felt like a knife to the heart. When Rep. Lewis died on July 17 at the age of 80, every tribute mentioned that his skull was fractured by an Alabama state trooper on March 7, 1965, as he led 600 peaceful marchers out of Selma, Ala., on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery.
By then, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the organization Rep. Lewis led as a young man, had been working to register Black voters in the South for three years. He called the Selma Campaign “the single event that gave birth to the Voting Rights Act” – landmark legislation that was seven decades in the making.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 enshrined the doctrine of “separate but equal” and unleashed the Jim Crow era of legal segregation across the South. But these laws could not survive unless Black people were prohibited from voting and electing anti-segregation lawmakers. It was the decision Williams v. Mississippi in 1898 that allowed the disenfranchisement of Black citizens through poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses that exempted white voters from these restrictions.
Even if they could navigate the nearly impossible restrictions, Black people could be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, boycotted and denied loans for registering to vote.
The rise of “Citizenship Schools” that helped Black registrants study for the literacy test prompted Alabama officials to change the test four times in less than two years. In her memoir, “Witness to Change,” my mother, Sybil Haydel Morial, described the humiliation of Clara, a woman she had tutored: “That mean man was so ugly to me. He told me I wasn’t smart enough to vote. I know I had the right identification, I read the Preamble (to the Constitution) without any mistakes and I passed that citizenship test. My age in years, months and days was right, because you helped me figure it out. Mrs. Morial, will I ever be able to vote?”
But far more than these onerous literacy tests, it was the threat of violence that kept Black people from voting.
“If economic pressure proved insufficient, the Ku Klux Klan was ready with violence and mayhem. Cross burnings. Night riders. Beatings. Rapes. Church bombings. Arson of businesses and homes. Murder and mob lynchings, drive-by shootings and sniper assassinations,” according to the Civil Rights Movement Archive.