Reviews — From the August 2015 issue

Old Poison, New Battles

The ongoing struggle for voting rights

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Discussed in this essay:

Give Us the Ballot, by Ari Berman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 358 pages. $27.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1870, declares that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It also stipulates that “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” For a century after the collapse of Reconstruction, officials sworn to uphold the Constitution used obstruction, evasion, intimidation, and fraud to negate the amendment and to effectively nullify the political participation of black citizens. White primaries excluded blacks from any role in selecting Democratic Party candidates — tantamount to eliminating black political influence altogether in Southern states, which were subject to one-party rule. The infamous “grandfather clause” raised literacy requirements for voting but created an exception for those whose forebears had been eligible to vote in 1866. The obvious purpose was to take the vote away from poor, unlettered blacks while sparing poor, unlettered whites. Racial gerrymandering was another widely used device for disfranchisement: in 1957, for example, the legislature of Alabama redefined the electoral boundaries of Tuskegee in such a way as to disqualify as voters all but four or five of its four hundred registered black voters, a task it accomplished without disturbing even a single white voter. State officials also purged blacks discriminatorily from voter rolls and excluded them with laws that authorized registrars to assess whether a potential voter could suitably “understand and explain” a given constitutional provision.

A voting line at a general store in Greene County, Alabama, in 1966 © Flip Schulke/Corbis

A voting line at a general store in Greene County, Alabama, in 1966 © Flip Schulke/Corbis

Courts struck down these and other unconstitutional voter-suppression efforts, but litigation was time-consuming. Local officials often disregarded adverse judgments or substituted new schemes as quickly as old ones were invalidated. Meanwhile, private citizens deployed informal obstacles. Bosses threatened to fire black employees who registered to vote. There was also the ever-available weapon of state-tolerated violence. In 1955, in Belzoni, Mississippi, George Lee was murdered after he refused to desist from urging blacks to register to vote. In 1961, in Liberty, Mississippi, Herbert Lee — no relation — was murdered on account of his voting-rights activism. (The local sheriff, who claimed the cause of death was a traffic accident, suggested that the buckshot found in Lee’s face during an autopsy was loose dental fillings.) In 1965, in Marion and Selma, Alabama, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Gregg Liuzzo were murdered because they had protested black disfranchisement.

The campaign to discourage black voting was appallingly effective. In 1965, at least two thirds of eligible white citizens were registered to vote in every Southern state. Registration among eligible black citizens, meanwhile, ranged from a high of 37 percent, in South Carolina, to a low of 6 percent, in Mississippi. The 15,000 blacks in Dallas County, Alabama, where Selma is located, constituted about half of the voting-age population in 1964, but only 335 were registered to vote, even after multiple Justice Department lawsuits to correct blatant racial discrimination. Writing in the fall of that year, John Doar, a Justice Department lawyer, observed that “the litigation method of correction has been tried harder [in Dallas County] than anywhere else in the South” but had failed to deliver to blacks “the most fundamental of their constitutional rights — the right to vote.”

Although Congress passed civil-rights acts in 1957, 1960, and 1964, Southern segregationists and their allies succeeded in neutering the voting-rights provisions that survived the legislative cauldron. That situation changed dramatically in the spring of 1965, after scores of peaceful demonstrators on a march from Selma to Montgomery (among them John Lewis, who was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the time) were brutally clubbed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state troopers enforcing Alabama governor George Wallace’s pledge that he was “not going to have a bunch of niggers” protesting along a highway in his state. Tapping into public outrage, Lyndon Johnson announced plans for new legislation to a joint session of Congress. He instructed Nicholas Katzenbach, his attorney general, to draft “the goddamdest toughest voting rights act that you can devise.”

The resulting law, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, had three key provisions. First, it suspended literacy tests and similar voting qualifications for five years in those areas in which racial disfranchisement had been most flagrant and pervasive. These were the so-called covered jurisdictions, which included the entire states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, as well as most of North Carolina. Second, it required covered jurisdictions to obtain preclearance from federal authorities before imposing any new voting regulations. Finally, it authorized the attorney general to assign federal examiners to register qualified voters in the event that local officials proved recalcitrant. The act, which became law fifty years ago this month, marked the high tide of the civil-rights era.

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is the Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School.

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