Members of Congress on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 3, 2013, marking the 48th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday." Photo: Ari Berman
On Sunday, March 3, Representative John Lewis locked arms with Luci Baines Johnson and Vice President Joe Biden and marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge here. Forty-eight years earlier, on “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis was badly beaten by Alabama state troopers at the foot of the bridge while attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights. Eight days later, Luci’s father introduced the Voting Rights Act before a joint session of Congress. “When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965,” Lewis said, “he helped free and liberate all of us.”
At the time of Bloody Sunday, only 393 of the 15,000 black voting-age residents of Selma’s Dallas County were registered to vote. Today Selma has a black mayor, a black congresswoman and six black city council members. Since 2000, Lewis has led a congressional pilgrimage to Selma for every anniversary of Bloody Sunday, paying homage to how the VRA transformed American democracy. This year’s march had special significance.
Five days before arriving in Selma, at the same time Congress unveiled a statue of the legendary civil rights activist Rosa Parks in the Capitol in Washington, Lewis sat in the Supreme Court as the justices debated a challenge to Section 5 of the VRA, which he called the “heart and soul” of the law. Section 5 compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting, primarily in the South, to clear election-related changes with the federal government. It’s widely regarded as the most effective provision of the country’s most important civil rights law. Lewis listened in dismay as the conservative justices described Section 5 as an antiquated infringement on state sovereignty, treating some states differently from others based on old data from the 1960s and ’70s. He said he almost cried when Justice Antonin Scalia likened the law to a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
“The right to vote is a racial entitlement?” Lewis said. “So what happened to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments? And what happened to the whole struggle to make it possible in the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first century, for every person to cast a ballot?” The conservatives on the Court seemed to view Section 5 as a relic from a bygone era rather than a powerful weapon that continues to stop voting discrimination today. “The Marshall Plan was very good too,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court’s swing vote, “but times change.”
To Kennedy and his conservative colleagues, states with a historic record of discrimination—such as Lewis’s home state of Alabama, where the current challenge originates—are now the ones being discriminated against. “If Alabama wants to have monuments to the heroes of the civil rights movement, if it wants to acknowledge the wrongs of its past, is it better off doing that if it’s an…independent sovereign or if it’s under the trusteeship of the United States government?” Kennedy asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who argued in defense of the law on behalf of the Obama administration. Chief Justice John Roberts mistakenly believes that Mississippi, which has never elected a black candidate to statewide office despite its voting-age population being 35 percent African-American, is a more enlightened place when it comes to voting discrimination than Massachusetts, which has a black governor.
Amazingly, the voter suppression attempts that spread nationwide during the last election never came up during the oral arguments. The justices did not hear, for example, that six of the nine states fully covered under Section 5, including Alabama, have passed new voting restrictions since 2010. Nor did they hear that the Justice Department and federal courts blocked four major discriminatory voting changes from becoming law last year under Section 5 (voter-ID bills in Texas and South Carolina, early-voting cutbacks in Florida, and redistricting maps in Texas).