In an action extreme enough to inspire the objection of Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court intervened this week to block a lower court’s order that Alabama must redraw its congressional maps before the 2022 midterm elections. The 5-4 decision denies Black voters, who make up 27 percent of Alabama’s electorate, the opportunity to elect an additional representative of their choice this year, despite a federal court’s ruling last month that the Voting Rights Act guarantees them this right. The court’s decision is not simply alarming because it undermines the fruit of the most famous Black-led struggle for democracy in the very place where it was won 57 years ago. It is all the more concerning because such an extreme action was taken without oral arguments or deliberation. But just as the struggle in Selma exposed the rotten roots of Jim Crow in 1965, the Supreme Court’s brazen action this week reveals the root cause of voter suppression efforts today.
In 1965, when mounted Dallas County sheriff’s deputies charged nonviolent marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the nation’s attention turned to Alabama and people were compelled to ask why anyone was willing to take such extreme actions to keep Black people from voting in the South. The civil rights movement quickly organized a march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to religious leaders around the country, asking them to come to Alabama to highlight the morality of their struggle for democracy. When 25,000 people marched up Dexter Avenue to the base of the state house steps on the last day of the march, King explained what the extremism they had witnessed revealed:
In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.
Yes, racism was being used to deny Black people the right to vote and pit poor Black people in the South against their poor white neighbors. But racism wasn’t the root cause, King insisted. Racism was a tool that elite interests used to subverting democracy. But their real goal was always to prevent economic justice for the Southern masses.
Nearly six decades later, the tools have changed, but the root cause of voter suppression remains the same. Jim Crow’s descendants went to law school and returned to serve elite interests as James Crow, Esquire. Claiming adherence to the letter of the law, they devised new tools to “stack and pack” Black voters into a small number of districts where Black representatives could win easily but have little power when they got to Washington because they are outnumbered by representatives from other districts where the power of Black voters and their allies have no chance of winning. Just as Jim Crow had employed an array of tactics to subvert the letter of the 15th Amendment, James Crow, Esq., combined gerrymandering with voter roll purges, strict voter ID requirements, relocation of polling sites, and cumbersome registration requirements to create additional hurdles for Black voters. When I led the North Carolina NAACP, we sued the governor over a voter suppression law and demonstrated in federal court that legislators had asked for data to make sure they chose the barriers that would most impact Black voters. In a ruling that the Supreme Court upheld in 2016, the court found that their actions targeted African Americans “with almost surgical precision.”
While James Crow, Esquire has found new ways to dilute the power of Black voters in the South, his real goal isn’t to keep Black people from voting. It is to keep Black people from voting with their poor white, Latino, Asian, and Native neighbors for policies that would benefit the majority of Americans. Then as now, you can’t separate the struggle for voting rights from the struggle for economic justice in America. We do democracy a disservice if we accept the narrative that says voter suppression is a “Black issue.” At its root, it’s about whether government is going to serve the people or elite corporate interests.
For decades, lawyers and judges committed to subverting the will of the growing majority in America have made careful legal arguments to try to justify their voter suppression tactics. But the reactionary right wing of the Supreme Court showed its true colors this week. Just as Selma’s officers didn’t arrest or charge John Lewis before administering the punishment of their billy clubs, SCOTUS denied Black voters in Alabama a seat in Congress without even hearing arguments. Such extremism is alarming, but it is also a sign that those defending the status quo are in a panic. No one would be fighting this hard to subvert democracy if they didn’t understand that the overwhelming majority of citizens want something else.