Good Reason for Voting Rights Act Paranoia

In a speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales pledged that the Bush administration would back an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act when it expires in 2007. But that won't convince thousands of blacks that Jim Crow is about to make a comeback in the voting booth. Ever since word spread that Congress must reapprove the Act, bloggers have burned the Internet with dire warnings that the Bush administration and the GOP-controlled Congress will torpedo the Act. That's the line that Jesse Jackson and thousands of other marchers shouted when they marched in Atlanta, August 6, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the Act by Lyndon Johnson.

That line is pure paranoia run amok. Voting rights for African-Americans are guaranteed in perpetuity by the Fifteenth Amendment. The only mischief that Bush and Congress can make if they so choose is to knock out a couple of the Act's expiring provisions. One requires that certain states, mostly in the South, get prior authorization from the Justice Department or federal courts before making changes in redistricting, district annexation, registration requirements, holding at-large elections, and methods to qualify candidates to safeguard against discrimination. The other worrisome provision has nothing whatsoever to do with blacks. It requires districts with large American Indian, Asian American and Latino populations to provide them with non-English voting materials.

But it's not a case of misguided paranoia to be suspicious of GOP motives when one considers the past and present history of voting abuses. It's that history that drives many blacks crazy with fear that they're about to be swindled out of their vote again. For almost a century after Reconstruction, the South concocted a vast array of literacy tests, poll taxes, informal voting codes, and whites-only primaries designed to make blacks the invisible men and women on Southern voting rolls. As late as 1948, a Gallop poll survey found that nearly 10 million blacks eligible to vote in the South were unregistered.

The Supreme Court's outlawing of the all-white Democratic primary in 1944 and the strong recommendation by President Harry Truman in 1947 that Congress increase black voter numbers only marginally increased black registration in the South. The Eisenhower administration's 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills contained weak, half-hearted provisions that permitted the Justice Department to sue districts that denied blacks their voting right. However, the White House, scared stiff of a furious Southern backlash, authorized only four lawsuits under the provisions of the act. It took a bloody rampage by Alabama state troopers at Selma in April 1965, national shock and rage at the violence and a clearly perturbed Johnson to get Congress to take action on the much-ignored and stalled Act.

Rabidly racist Southern Democrats predictably screamed that the act was unlawful federal intrusion and violated states' rights. But racist Democrats weren't the biggest obstacle to the Act's passage. House Republicans were. Then Republican minority leader, Gerald Ford proposed four ridiculous provisions to gut the bill. The provisions did not outlaw the poll tax and literacy tests, and authorized the attorney general to bring suit only after receiving a set number of complaints of voting violations. An even more preposterous gambit would have eliminated a provision requiring the federal courts to approve all voting rights laws passed by Southern states.

With Johnson pounding away, and the stench of tear gas still in the nation's nostrils from the Selma attack, Congress relented and dumped the Republican provisions. But that didn't end the fight to protect black voting rights. Republicans Nixon, Reagan and Bush Sr. carefully crafted and fine-tuned the Republican's Southern strategy. The goal was to win elections by doing and saying as little as possible about black rights while openly and subtly pandering to Southern white fears of black political domination.

Civil rights leaders still rail that the Bush administration disenfranchised thousands of black votes in Florida in 2000 and hijacked the White House. They accuse Bush operatives of rigging voting machines and tampering with voter rolls to bag Ohio in 2004. Earlier this year, blacks demanded that the Justice Department examine a Georgia law that requires voters there to show a photo identification at the polls, Supposedly, this is a sneaky way to harass and intimidate minorities. Since 1965, the Justice Department has filed more than one thousand complaints of voting irregularities, almost all involving minorities.

At the recent NAACP convention, Republican National Chairman Ken Melhlman did a mea culpa for the GOP's sordid past. But one speech won't wipe away black suspicions that Republicans play fast and loose with black votes when it threatens their interests. Gonzales, however, did the right thing by publicly promising to do whatever it takes to insure that none of the Act's provisions lapse. Thousands of paranoid eyes will be watching to see that he keeps that promise.

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