Shall we overcome setbacks?
On this summer marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington, D.C., from which came his speech to all of America about the values that all share including equal rights for all, we once again must determine if we shall overcome the continuing vestiges of racism in America.
Make no mistake, we have come a long distance in the past half century in terms of recognizing the true intent of our Constitution to protect all equally under the law, and we have done so by no small measure with debt to Dr. King and those who stood beside him.
But on this significant anniversary we face a new challenge, one that was unnecessary without the intervention of the five Republican conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the conservatives’ opinion on their dismantling of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, actually noted the success of that legislation as a basis for ending it.
Roberts argued that because the very types of discrimination that evidenced at the time of passage of the law have been largely overcome, that the law was no longer relevant in requiring only some states and counties to gain Department of Justice approval before changing voting regulations.
The Roberts opinion presented statistics noting the proportional percentages of voters in covered states to the populations of those states by race, as well as the significantly increased number of African Americans who are now elected to federal, state and local positions.
Roberts offered that Congress might re-visit the issue by creating oversight more relevant to the country of the 21st century, but that the original identifications for DOJ review no longer evidenced the specific issues that created the legislation.
Many supporting the decision did so by arguing that true justice forbids singling out individual states for oversight, following Roberts lead in the majority opinion.
But the facts simply do not support the conclusions of the majority.
While there are more elected black officials than in 1964 relative to population of this minority, that fact alone does not indicate the elimination of discrimination. It only indicates that the form and shape of discrimination has changed over the last half century.
Where once poll taxes, literacy tests and blatant discrimination once held power in some states and counties, today many of those same states and counties have created more subtle forms of discrimination, including limiting polling places in minority communities, limiting voting machines in those same locations, drawing district lines that minimize representation by the minority, and creating voter ID regulations known to adversely affect minorities.
And while the Roberts’ opinion proposes that the Voting Rights Act has not kept pace with these changes in the form of discrimination, the facts indicate that the opposite is true; the law has been flexible and since its Congressional renewal in 2006 has blocked 31 discriminatory restrictions and challenged another 153 proposed regulations that resulted in withdrawals of those proposals.
Further, the law provided for “bail out” clauses where many communities were able to end their oversight by application and evidence of fair voting policies in place.
The five Republican conservative justices found an avenue to dismantle the entire Act by cutting out the heart of its enforcement power, and they did so at the very same time that Republicans across the nation are attacking voting rights in much the same way this court has.
The tools have been a variety of ideas to reduce voter registrations and challenge voters at the polls, a kind of reversal of the basic premise of encouraging all citizens to participate in our democracy.
It will not be an easy task to restore what was destroyed this week by five Republican justices, but Dr. King passionately argued that “we shall overcome” in the face of greater acts of discrimination.
We must measure up to his expectations for all of us and once again fight to ensure that each and every vote in America is valued and protected.
Jim Crawford is a retired educator and political enthusiast living here in the Tri-State.