Thomas Paine, the most radical of the nation’s Founders, wrote in 1795: “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected.”
Eighty years later, feminist Susan B. Anthony quoted Paine’s exact words to defend herself—and make the case for women’s suffrage—when she was being prosecuted for having persuaded her local poll-keepers in upstate New York to allow her to cast a ballot. And on signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson observed that “the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”
If only the words spoken by Paine, Anthony, and LBJ were not just moving, but also true. The right to vote has been fundamental to the struggle for freedom, equality, and democracy—and surely, the most defining experience of citizenship is that of casting a ballot at election time. Nonetheless, we should never forget, first, that even if we define democracy simply as universal adult suffrage, the United States has only recently come close to living up to its proclaimed purpose of serving as history’s grand democratic experiment; and second, that even when the right to vote itself has finally been won, it does not mean it has been fully secured.
Enfranchisement has neither prevented ruling elites from continuing to exploit and oppress, nor kept them from turning things around and effectively stripping fellow citizens of their hard-won rights—including the right to vote itself.
The post-Civil War Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting African-American men the right to vote states very clearly: Section 1: 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. Section 2: The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. And yet, as President Franklin Roosevelt himself was to observe in the 1930s: “New laws, in themselves, do not bring a millennium.” And he might well have added that not even constitutional amendments necessarily do.
Southern black men were granted full rights of citizenship and the franchise after the Civil War. Nonetheless, in ensuing decades, propertied white supremacists still found ways to subject African Americans to coercive labor systems such as sharecropping, debt peonage, and chain gangs; impose Jim Crow segregation with the endorsement of the Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896); and—by way of both a generous mix of law and thuggery, as well as the deference of Congress—to deny the vote to millions of blacks (not to mention poor whites).
Taking decades of struggle and sacrifice, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 launched a revolution in American democratic life. And yet, as recent events in the nation’s streets, legislative galleries, and courtrooms testify, racism persists and the struggle for racial justice and equal rights continues.
In Give Us The Ballot, Nation magazine political correspondent Ari Berman has written an extremely valuable and terribly timely history of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Terribly timely not just because this year marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment and signing into law of the VRA (August 6, 1965), but all the more so because the VRA and the right to vote are not just under continuing attack but actually under siege.
Under the ruse of preventing “voter fraud,” Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have enacted laws clearly intended to make it more difficult for minority, poor, and young Americans to actually exercise their right to vote. In short, they seek not to “Rock the Vote,” but to suppress it. And the same conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court that decided 5-4 in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to liberate corporations to dole out political dollars galore decided by 5-4 in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) to ignore a vote of Congress and the dictates of the Fifteenth Amendment and invalidate the section of the VRA that required a host of Southern states to get “preclearance” from the federal government before they instituted changes in their electoral procedures.
Berman relates the story of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) from its making in 1965 to its mauling in 2013. In chapters bearing titles such as “The Second Emancipation,” “The Second Reconstruction,” “The Southern Strategy,” and “The Counterrevolution,” he recalls the 1965 marches that propelled the history-making passage of the VRA in Congress; the extraordinary transformations wrought by the federal government’s implementation of the Act in the former states of the Confederacy; the concurrent campaigns and diverse machinations through the course of five decades by reactionaries, conservatives, and neoconservatives to block, undermine, or do in the Act piece by piece; and finally, the Roberts Court’s devastating decision in Shelby.
The story of the VRA has its heroes and its villains. Its heroes are numerous. Most famously, they include the great civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.; SNCC leader and now U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th District John Lewis, who with other truly courageous nonviolent activists set out on the now-celebrated march from Selma to Montgomery and suffered severely brutal assaults by Alabama’s state troopers; and President Lyndon Johnson, who, ever more determined to secure passage of a serious voting rights bill (despite Hollywood assertions to the contrary), demanded action in a speech before Congress and the nation in which he proclaimed the words “We shall overcome”—a speech that King himself called “the most moving, eloquent, unequivocal and passionate plea for human rights ever made by any president.”
The Voting Rights revolution that King, Lewis, and the President helped to launch not only empowered Southern blacks to vote in their tens and, soon, hundreds of thousands (more than 1,000,000 by 1970), but also to stand for office and—in many a town, county, and city—even win elections. Charles Evers, whose brother Medgar, a World War II veteran and leader of the Mississippi NAACP, was gunned down outside his home in 1963, was elected mayor of Fayette in 1969, becoming, as Berman writes, “the first black mayor of a biracial Mississippi town since Reconstruction.”
Sadly, the villains both high and low are also plentiful. They include not only the likes of arch-segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace; ardently racist Circuit Court Judge James Hare and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark; and innumerable sheriff’s officers and state troopers who were eager to beat up, if not kill, voting-rights activists; but also, in ensuing years, reactionary and conservative politicians and political operatives who tried their utmost to get around or limit the impact of the voting rights law.
In fact, as Berman points out, conservatives actually thought that the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency in 1968 would enable them to kill the VRA when it came up for renewal in 1970. They figured that the new president—who was eager to pursue a “Southern Strategy” of turning the GOP into the majority party by turning the region into a Republican stronghold—would veto the renewal. But they were wrong. Fearing the consequences of not doing so, Nixon signed the renewal bill passed by Congress. Indeed, right-wing efforts were regularly stymied, for the majority of Americans believed in voting rights, federal judges were prepared to knock down laws and practices intended to get around the Act, and moderate white politicians themselves were now cultivating African-American electoral support.
Conservatives, however, were soon to pick up new, influential allies. Prominent Northern “neo-conservative” intellectuals—who had supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s but were moving to the right in the 1970s in reaction to affirmative action programs that implied “racial quotas”—also turned against the Voting Rights Act in the name of “color-blind” justice. As Harvard-educated Abigail Thernstrom, the leading voice of the neo-cons’ crusade, wrote in 1979: “The Voting Rights Act…ushered in a dual revolution; not only were the names of two million blacks added to the registration rolls, but the definition of enfranchisement had changed. The right to vote came to mean the right to equal electoral result and maximum political effectiveness.” And, as she and her comrades saw it, the Act had done its job and what liberals and blacks were now pursuing was unacceptable. Outfitted with not only politicians, political operatives, and lawyers, but also smart, respected public intellectuals, the Counterrevolution took off.
Berman deftly weaves together the politics, the intellectual and legal arguments, the legislative battles, the counterrevolutionary schemes, and the tragic and ironic turns in the story. The most politically and morally challenging revolves around the creation of “majority-minority” congressional districts that have enabled African-American voters to send black representatives to Washington, but at the same time allowed right-wing Republicans an easier route to getting elected to a far greater number of Southern seats.
The most astonishing and exasperating things that Berman relates have to do with two Chief Justices of the Supreme Court: William Rehnquist and John Roberts—things that, if you truly believe in democracy, will lead you to ask where the hell the Democrats were when these guys came up for consideration before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Berman writes: “In 1952, as a twenty-eight-year-old clerk to Justice Robert Jackson, Rehnquist had written an explosive memo as the Court prepared to hear the first round of arguments in Brown v. Board of Education. ‘I realize that it is an unpopular and unhumanitarian position, for which I have been excoriated by “liberal” colleagues, but I think Plessy v. Ferguson was right and should be reaffirmed,’ Rehnquist wrote.” And 48 years later, the now-Chief-Justice Rehnquist led the Court in a 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore (2000) that resolved the presidential-election dead heat in Florida by handing over the presidency to George W. Bush—a decision driven by the Court’s conservative majority, which effectively overlooked the disfranchisement of thousands of black voters that had occurred due to a prior “purging” of the electoral rolls ordered by Florida’s Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
And as Berman notes, the future Chief Justice John Roberts was very much tied up in the proceedings. Though his name appears on none of the Bush legal team’s briefs, Roberts, who had clerked at the Supreme Court in 1981 for then-Associate Justice Rehnquist—and was remarkably “in sync with Rehnquist” on civil rights questions—edited the briefs and helped prepare the Bush case. Moreover, as Berman fully details, the man who would lead the Court in its 5-4 decision in Shelby, went from clerking for Rehnquist to working in the Reagan Justice Department, where he applied his talents to making voting-rights violations all the more difficult to prove.
State by state, our democratic rights are under siege. To redeem the nation from 40 years of right-wing reaction and class war from above will take more than an election cycle. It’ll require popular political action. But as we can see from what has been happening in states from North Carolina and Texas to Wisconsin and beyond, if the party that is so eager to suppress the vote—not to mention strip workers of their organizing and bargaining rights, reduce women’s right to control their own bodies, destroy Medicare, Obamacare, and possibly Social Security—wins the presidency and continues to control the Congress, then the Court will become all the more conservative if not reactionary.
The radical Thomas Paine was not naïve. He not only said “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected.” Knowing that disfranchisement was possible, he also said: “To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case. The proposal therefore to disfranchise any class of men is as criminal as the proposal to take away property.” And just a few years later, conservatives would deny him the right to vote in New Rochelle, New York.
In 2016, vote like your vote depended on it.
Harvey J. Kaye is Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster, 2014), which was recently released in paperback. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HarveyJKaye