LBJ responds to national anger and sends a voting rights bill to Congress. It’s a good one, but long overdue.
The voting-rights bill which President Johnson sent to Congress as a result of the nation’s anger, and his own, over the callous violence of Alabama state troopers at Selma and the murder of the Rev. James Reeb is a historic step forward–but long overdue and far from enough. (See “The Right To Vote: Small Fruit of a Bold Promise” by William W. Van Alstyne, The Nation, April 19.)
That it is long overdue is certainly no reason not to welcome it. That it is far from enough is certainly reason to point out that the Administration has at hand, if only it will use it, a much more effective way to guarantee the vote to Negroes in the South than this or any other piece of legislation that Congress could pass. That is the “Mississippi Challenge.”
If it succeeds–and what President Johnson and his Administration do about it may well determine whether or not it will succeed–it will stand as a lesson forever to the Southern states that as long as they prevent Negroes from voting they are in danger of losing their representation in Congress.
The “Mississippi Challenge” is the contest–filed on the first day of Congress this year on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party–to the right of the five Mississippi Congressmen to sit in the House of Representatives. It is based on the allegation that the Congressmen were nominated and elected in a primary and general election from which Negroes “were regularly and systematically excluded by intimidation, harassment, economic reprisal, property damage, terrorization, violence and illegal and unconstitutional registration procedures.”
What are chances of the Challenge’s success? Good, if the national indignation aroused by Selma and its aftermath does not cool off or become apathetically satisfied with a nominal voting-rights bill. Good, if the Challenge is determined on the basis of conditions as they exist in Mississippi, as documented by some 15,000 pages of sworn testimony taken in the space of six weeks in a modern miracle of legal effort. Good, if the Administration and the Republican leadership make the slightest effort when the Challenge comes to a vote in the House to support the 149 Congressmen who voted, on January 4, not even to seat the five Mississippians until the Challenge was decided.
Federal law gives the contestants in such a challenge the right to take testimony to support their claim. The taking of that testimony has now been completed and has gone forward to the Subcommittee on Elections of the House Committee on Administration. From there it will be reported out to the House itself. The Mississippi Challenge has scarcely been mentioned in the nation’s press, but Drew Pearson said recently, “The challenge to Mississippi’s Congressmen is causing such worry that Gov. Paul Johnson has called off a special session of the state legislature originally planned to denounce the new civil rights act.”