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Voting Rights Act explored in ‘Bending Toward Justice’

Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Shelby County v. Holder, a case that challenges the constitutionality of a key provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act,

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Earlier this year, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Shelby County v. Holder, a case that challenges the constitutionality of a key provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Justice Antonin Scalia said that renewing the historic legislation would amount to a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

“I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this,” Scalia said about Congress’ near-unanimous renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 2006. “I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement … Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”

Gary May, a history professor at the University of Delaware, says that Scalia is wrong on two accounts. First, while the Voting Rights Act has typically been thought of in relation to African American enfranchisement, May says that the Act led to “astronomically” higher rates of white voter registration as well, because poll taxes no longer prevented poor whites from casting ballots. But more importantly, May argues, the Voting Rights Act is still critical to American democracy — it would be a “serious blow” if the Supreme Court rules against it this summer.

May is the author of the new book, “Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy,” which comes at a moment when the signature achievement of the Civil Rights Movement is in danger of being dismantled. May’s comprehensive history of the Voting Rights Act details the grassroots movement that inspired the Act, the political maneuvering that led to its passage, and the decades of pushback it subsequently received — serving as a reminder that the ability to go to the polls has never been too secure.

Focusing on Selma, Ala., which he calls “ground zero of the voting rights movement,” May highlights the long line of activists who worked there, from Martin Luther King Jr., to lesser-known names such as Bernard Lafayette, James Foreman and Amelia Boynton. He traces the events that led up to “Bloody Sunday,” the brutal beating of 600 peaceful marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge by state troopers, and the historic march two weeks later from Selma to Montgomery.

May then turns to the inner-workings of the White House and Congress to explain how President Lyndon B. Johnson crafted the legislation and successfully convinced lawmakers to pass it.

But perhaps most interesting and relevant today are the later chapters that describe the persistent attacks on the Voting Rights Act since Johnson left office. While the South had traditionally been a Democratic stronghold, Richard Nixon saw an opportunity in the 1968 election to flip the region to Republican control by developing what is now known as the “Southern strategy,” an appeal to those who resented black gains and wanted to see them rolled back. May says this “set the pattern of Republican resistance to the Voting Rights Act.”

The Voting Rights Act later faced other challenges, including lawmakers trying to dilute or eliminate certain provisions of the law.

“Ironically, when the Voting Rights Act came up for renewal in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006, all the presidents were Republican,” says May. “And each one of them — with the possible exception of George W. Bush — set out to weaken the Voting Rights Act.”

In particular, Section 5, which requires certain states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls to get approval from the Justice Department before making any changes to voting procedure, was targeted by conservatives under the Ford and Reagan administrations, who felt it unfairly singled out Southern states and represented an overstep of the federal government.

Today, Section 5 is still in jeopardy — this time, because of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder case — and May says that this provision remains critical to securing fairness at the polls.

“The Southern states that are covered by Section 5 led the voter suppression movement in 2010, 2011 and 2012,” he says, “and it’s from those states that came the voter ID laws, demands that Sunday voting be stopped and the prevention of organizations like the League of Women Voters from signing up new voters.”

According to May, it was precisely because of Section 5 that many of the recent voter ID laws, which May says are “pretty close” to the poll taxes and literacy tests of the past, were stopped.

“America is becoming a more multi-ethnic, multi-racial society, and instead of adjusting to it, accepting it, being happy about it, so many of these states, and Republicans in particular, are trying to suppress that development,” May says. “We’re going to see more of voter ID and other efforts to suppress the vote, but Obama’s re-election, which showed an increase in African American, Hispanic and Asian American turnout, is a sign that people are not going to go back, and that the Civil Rights Movement is still a potent force to be reckoned with.”