The reasons for the Voting Rights Act may seem foggy today, but they were crystal clear 50 years ago. States, the vast majority in the South, had placed legal barriers in front of the voting rights of African-Americans. Starting with the end of Reconstruction, Southern states had invented numerous ways to “establish white supremacy,” as the authors of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution bluntly put it. A combination of poll taxes, tests and outright intimidation kept most Southern blacks out of the voting booth, thereby cheating democracy’s fullest flowering.
Section 5 was set to expire five years after passage in 1965. However, it was renewed in 1970, and by several votes of Congress over the years it remains the law of the land. In the covered states, each redistricting — for congressional seats and state or local districts — must be reviewed in order to establish that minority voting rights are protected.
Yet in many important ways, times have changed in Southern states. To cite a local example, the five-member Anniston City Council is majority-black, a fact that scarcely raised anyone’s notice. Across the region, social class is often a bigger dividing line than race these days. And that division is not merely confined to Southern states.
As Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in 2009, “We are now a very different nation.”
In fact, in the term that started Monday, the Supreme Court is expected to take a very close look at the necessity of Section 5 in today’s America. The weighing of this matter may be the most important item the court will take up in its new session.
Gone are poll taxes, as are other unconstitutional means that states like Alabama used to deny full citizenship to African-Americans. Segregationist language no longer has a place on the campaign stump. Outright racists like Selma’s notorious Sheriff Jim Clark are out of step with the times.
Yet, while the justices can clearly see the progress, they must also examine the backsliding of the recent past in Alabama and other states. A wave of immigration law — in Alabama and other Southern states — was essentially an exercise in demonizing Hispanics. In its original form, Alabama’s HB56 was a brunt instrument intended to harass and intimidate. Though weakened by various appeals-court challenges and proven to be largely ineffective, the law’s supporters in Montgomery proudly cling to this official bigotry.
We could say the same for a new photo-ID law passed by the Alabama Legislature in 2011. Starting in 2014, Alabamians will be required to produce a photo ID in order to vote. Studies show that the law will have a huge impact on racial minorities who don’t drive. Even though the state-issued photo ID will be free, the cost of recovering the documents needed to obtain the ID isn’t. In other words, there’s a hidden poll tax at the heart of Alabama’s voter-ID law.
The nine Supreme Court justices will have much to consider when examining the necessity of the Voting Rights Act.