Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Voting Rights Act changed South

As reported in the Jackson Clarion Ledger, "Voting Rights Act changed South: Avenue to fight entrenched segregation," by Jerry Mitchell, on 25 June 2013  --  The section of the Voting Rights Act the Supreme Court struck down Tuesday sparked a black voting strength in Mississippi that changed the state’s political landscape.

“The Voting Rights Act changed the tone and mood in the South,” said Leslie Burl McLemore, director of the Fannie Lou Hamer National Institute on Citizenship and Democracy. “It made white politicians change their tune, and even today you don’t have the race baiting that you had for hundreds of years.”

He said he tends to believe the congressional act is the most important piece of social legislation over the past half century, leading to more elected African-American officials in Mississippi than any other state.

Armed with the Voting Rights Act, Frank Parker and other civil rights lawyers began challenging entrenched segregation.

Parker “single-handedly put the state of Mississippi in the 21st century,” said George Cochran, longtime professor for the University of Mississippi School of Law.

That work led to redistricting and to the 1986 election of Mike Espy, the state’s first African-American congressman since Reconstruction.

Espy said Tuesday he wouldn’t have won without the 1965 law, which helped increase voter registration. The symbolic value his campaign represented “prompted turnout at relative record levels,” he said. “Without the Voting Rights Act, it simply would not have been possible.”

Minus the law, Mississippi would have seen more racial conflicts, more polarization and far fewer African-American voters and elected officials, he said.

Passage of the Voting Rights Act meant African-American voters could no longer be ignored, Cochran said. Southern stalwarts of segregation, such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace, U.S. Sen. Jim Eastland and U.S. Strom Thurmond, began to change their ways.

“Strom Thurmond, who is the biggest racist in the world, all of a sudden is a leading liberal,” Cochran said.

“The black voting strength can do immense things to a politician.”

Tuesday’s 5-4 decision struck him as ships passing in the night, each wing of the court seeing different facts, he said.

He said Justice Samuel Alito found no record of voting barriers in his concurring opinion, while in her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared there was an abundant record for “second-generation barriers to minority voting rights.”

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. concluded that Congress continued to use an outdated formula that requires Mississippi and eight other states to let the Justice Department review any voting law changes.

“Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines,” he wrote, “yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

Constance Slaughter-Harvey, who worked with Parker at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said she’s disappointed in the decision.

“For those who have invested ourselves and our energies in making certain citizens are permitted to vote, it’s a setback,” she said.

In spring 1963, she decided to become a lawyer after hearing NAACP leader Medgar Evers speak at Tougaloo College. Days later, he was assassinated outside his Jackson home.

She talked of ending retirement to resume the fight. “We are playing partisan politics with precious rights that people have died for,” she said. “Not only is it painful, it’s insulting.”

She called Tuesday’s decision “a sad, sad day, but it doesn’t kill my spirit or destroy my dream. I’m very angry, but I’m not going to lose any sleep because I know I have to be set for what’s ahead.” (source: Jackson Clarion Ledger)

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