Voting Rights Icon Lawrence Guyot’s Death Animates a Fight Over the Future

Voting Rights Icon Lawrence Guyot’s Death Animates a Fight Over the Future

Voting Rights Icon Lawrence Guyot’s Death Animates a Fight Over the Future

Guyot's memorials prompted a Wall Street Journal op-ed writer to insist that the civil rights past is irrelevant to the Voting Rights Act’s future.


Few people have taken as many fists and gun butts to the head, kicks to the gut and hours of torturous treatment as Lawrence Guyot, an original civil rights soldier who continued struggling all the way up to his death on November 23, at the age of 73.

In the early 1960s, he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as a native son of Mississippi, and became the director of the Freedom Summer Project in Hattiesburg. He also was a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that courageously worked to change the state’s Democratic Party from exclusively white to inclusive of African-Americans. For his work in registering black people to vote alongside freedom fighters such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorie Ladner, Medgar Evers and June Johnson, he was bloodied and beaten by white police, sometimes within a hair of death.

The blood he shed, and his organizing around voter registration, is the clay from which the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was formed. Guyot was engaged to the end, and brought himself to vote one last time in this November’s elections, as he was battling diabetes and heart disease. Avis Thomas-Lester, executive editor of the black DC newspaper The Afro wrote in his obituary for Guyot:

After moving to Washington D.C., he continued to lobby for voting rights, becoming one of the foremost experts on the topic and a staunch believer that Blacks needed to be vigilant to ensure that their voting rights weren’t compromised. He watched in consternation and concern as state after state moved, by Republican machinations, to limit access to the polls for the November 2012 election and was elated that Obama was reelected despite them.

After Guyot’s death, Constitutional Accountability Center’s Doug Kendall and Emily Phelps wrote a post about why the Supreme Court should consider his legacy in their upcoming review of the Voting Rights Act. Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto pounced on CAC’s argument, accusing them of romanticizing Guyot’s death and suggesting that the civil rights struggles of the past are irrelevant to the voting rights matter before the Court today.

Taranto concluded, “Paying tribute to the heroes of the past is entirely fitting, but clinging to the policies of the past is reactionary.”

But these heroes aren’t of the past, Guyot was fighting for voting rights all the way up to his last days, experiencing the benefits of that work in this year’s election. VRA’s Section 5 is under attack precisely because of its relevance. It was used in this election to back down voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina that would have put hundreds of thousands of Latino and African-American voters at a disadvantage. It delayed a voter ID law in Mississippi to make certain it would not have a discriminatory effect there. This is not a policy of the past, it is ever-present.

As Kendall wrote in his response to Taranto, “On any faithful reading of our Constitution, Congress has the power of selecting the means of protecting one of our most cherished constitutional rights from racial discrimination.”

The Fifteenth Amendment says, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and, “The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Congress did that when they passed the act in 1965 and reauthorized it four more times, the most recent in 2006. In the case coming before the Supreme Court next year, Shelby County, Alabama, a covered jurisdiction under VRA’s Section 5, is arguing that Congress overstepped its constitutional authority in that last reauthorization, due to an admittedly flawed formula that determines which states should be covered.

Kendall says it’s clear that Congress is well within its constitutional powers, despite any flaws in the legislation, and that even if there are some problems with the act, that’s for Congress to fix, not the Court.

“What the Supreme Court shouldn’t do is nitpick Congress,” Kendall told me. “This is not the role of the Court. Congress is the fact-finder. The Court is not a body that’s institutionally capable of making factual findings behind legislation and it shouldn’t second-guess Congress without a really good reason.“

There are problems with the law, and Section 5 in particular. Congress should be looking at states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which aren’t covered by Section 5, to improve it. I wrote back in May that the law should be updated and expanded to include places like Florida (only five counties in the state are covered jurisdictions), which has been accumulating a terrible voting record over the last twelve years—that also goes for states like Tennessee, Colorado and Nevada that are headed in the wrong direction. However, such law expansions are not within the Court’s purview.

The Court can either leave VRA intact—and given Chief Justice John Roberts’ antagonism towards it, that seems unlikely—or, it can strike Section 5. In either event, its decision should be a trigger for Congress to come up with a new game plan.

Kendall wrote in his original post, “Mr. Guyot will not be in the courtroom as the Supreme Court takes up Shelby County, but his story should loom over the Court’s deliberations and should lead the Court to affirm, rather than strike down, this iconic and still essential law.”

So what would Guyot do? Or rather, what he say about VRA in its current form? Do we owe it to his legacy to iron out the wrinkles in the law he fought for, or would it be honorable enough to preserve it as is? We know that he supported marriage equality far before most of the nation did—an issue also presently before the Supreme Court. So he was a man who pointed the conversation about civil rights both forward and backward. His friend Denise Reed said of him in Highbrow magazine, “He connected the past with [the present], so people would learn from it, gain strength from it, not forget and keep in mind the relevance of his experience.”

—Brentin Mock

For more coverage of voting rights, check out the Voting Rights Watch blog, a joint-project with The Nation and Colorlines.

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