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The South Has Been at Civil War for 150 Years

The film Lincoln ends after the Amendment that ended slavery throughout the nation passed. But for blacks, earning the rights of citizenship was to prove a much more protracted war.

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Meanwhile the Supreme Court has retreated from its aggressive defense of voting rights. In 1966 the Warren Court struck down a $1.50 tax imposed on each voter (equivalent to about $10.50 today). Legislators in southern states defended the tax as a way to prevent “repeaters and floaters” from committing voter fraud. The Court ruled that voting is a fundamental Constitutional right and thus the burden was on the state to prove that a discriminatory law was necessary. It argued that a “payment of a fee as a measure of a voter’s qualifications” violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by unfairly burdening low income, mostly black voters.

In 2007, in a case involving an extremely restrictive voter photo ID law in Indiana, the Roberts Court turned the Warren Court’s 1966 decision on its head by deciding that the burden of proof now rests on those discriminated against to disprove “every conceivable basis which might support” the discrimination. Indiana offered no evidence to support the need for a photo ID. Indeed, it was unable to identify a single instance of in-person voter impersonation fraud in all of its history. The Court acknowledged that as many as 40,000 voters could be at risk because they would have to bear the cost of traveling to distant locations and paying up to $12 for a birth certificate or upwards of $100 for a passport to obtain such an ID, a far greater financial penalty than that imposed by the southern poll tax.

The Roberts Court decision unleashed a wave of voter restriction laws. Thirty states now have voter ID laws, many of them requiring a government-issued ID.

President Obama did win re-election, but the context of that victory is instructive. Elizabeth Drew writes in the New York Review of Books, “On election day, a nationwide coalition of lawyers manned five thousand call centers around the country. Its phone line 1-866-OUR-VOTE…was flooded with almost 100,000 calls from distressed voters saying that they had been told at the polling places that they weren’t eligible to vote, even though they had registered.” Some waited in line for 6 hours or more to exercise their right to vote.

In December 2011 the Department of Justice invoked the Voting Rights Act to block South Carolina’s voter ID law. In August 2012 a three judge panel unanimously held that Florida could not slash its early voting period, citing the Voting Rights Act. After the election this year, the former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, in an interview with the Palm Beach Post noted that he went to several meetings in which Republican officials discussed the damage that early voting, which brought an unprecedented number of blacks to the polls in 2008, had done to the party.

In August another three-judge panel unanimously ruled that Texas’ new state legislative and congressional districts diluted minority voting strength, citing the Voting Rights Act.

Three days after the 2012 election the Roberts Court announced it will hear Shelby County, Alabama’s challenge to the Voting Rights Act. Most observers predict it will overturn the requirement that states gain Department of Justice (DOJ) approval for voting changes.

By all means go see the movie Lincoln. You can even go out cheering the January 1865 victory. But realize that the movie’s triumphal ending did not mark the end of the struggle to gain full citizenship for blacks and other minorities, but only the beginning. Today minorities no longer confront poll taxes and the Ku Klux Klan but newly imposed voting restrictions and racially biased drug laws and a Supreme Court that is indifferent or outright hostile to the rights of minorities. Gridlocked Washington will not come to the rescue. But much of the problem lies at the state level. We need a new massive grassroots struggle such as that which arose in the 1950s and the 1960s, this one to overturn draconian and racially biased drug laws and to eliminate the new wave of law that hamper voter participation. The struggle continues.

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