On June 21, 1964, the civil-rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were abducted in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. The killings in Mississippi, where only 6.7 percent of African Americans were registered to vote in 1964, shocked the nation and helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Yet opponents of the VRA never stopped fighting the law. Ronald Reagan, who called the VRA “humiliating to the South,” kicked off his general-election campaign for president in 1980 at the nearly all-white Neshoba County Fair, which had long been a hotbed of white supremacy. Reagan spoke nearly 16 years to the day after the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were discovered, and told the crowd, “I believe in states’ rights”—a phrase that had long been the rallying cry of Southern segregationists. (I tell this story in more detail in my book Give Us the Ballot.)
“For a presidential candidate to kick off his campaign there, that was heartbreaking,” said civil-rights leader John Lewis. “It was a direct slap in the face of the movement and all of the progress that we were trying to make.”
The legacy of Reagan’s opposition to the VRA still defines our politics today.
John Roberts, a young lawyer in the Reagan administration who wrote dozens of memos at the time criticizing the VRA, three decades later authored the majority opinion gutting the law, ruling that states with the longest histories of voting discrimination, like Mississippi, no longer have to approve their voting changes with the federal government.
The 52nd anniversary of the murders of Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner coincide with the third anniversary of the Shelby County v. Holder decision. The full impact of that ruling will be felt in this year’s election, the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA. Seventeen states have new voting restrictions in place for the 2016 presidential race, including more than half of those previously covered by Section 5 of the VRA, and representing 189 electoral votes, 70 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the presidency.