President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act at US Capitol alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Photo: Yoichi R. Okamoto, courtesy Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum
At 11 am, as Congress unveiled a statue honoring Rosa Parks, the civil rights leaders of today (Including Rep. John Lewis, who nearly died in Selma during "Bloody Sunday") were gathered inside the Supreme Court, listening to a challenge to the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act. The stark contrast illustrated the profound contradictions of American democracy when it comes to race and political power—the progress we’ve made has always been met by equally intense efforts to roll back that progress. And that remains true today, especially on February 27, 2013.
“To honor Rosa Parks in the fullest manner, each of us must do our part to protect that which has been gained, defend the great documents upon which those gains were obtained and continue our pursuit of a more perfect union,” Congressman James Clyburn, who grew up in segregated South Carolina in the 1940s and ’50s, said at the statue unveiling. Parks herself was present when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in the Capitol rotunda on August 6, 1965. Twelve years before famously refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Parks attempted to register to vote. She was denied three times, and had to pass a literacy test and pay a poll tax in 1945 just to exercise what should have been her fundamental right. That’s the way America was before the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Inside the courtroom, five conservative Justices made the case for why Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act—which compels parts or all of sixteen states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear election-related changes with the federal government—is no longer necessary. (See my recent Nation article, “Why Are Conservative Trying to Destroy the Voting Rights Act?” for a definitive account of the Shelby County v. Holder case and the conservative organization and money behind the challenge.)
Section 5 is the most effective section of the most effective civil rights law ever passed by Congress and has been called the “keystone of our voting rights” by Attorney General Eric Holder. But to the conservative majority on the court, Section 5 is an antiquated infringement on state sovereignty, treating some states differently than others based on outdated data from the 1960s and ’70s. Justice Scalia mocked the entirety of the Voting Rights, calling congressional support for the legislation (which has been overwhelmingly reauthorized four times, most recently in 2006, and signed by four Republican presidents) a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”