Voting Rights Act Under Fire Again

Human Rights

Many continue to be shocked and puzzled over congressional foot-dragging over renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The assumption was that Congress would quickly renew it and that President Bush, as promised, would just as quickly sign the renewal. In the weeks before House Republicans dashed that hope, Senate and House Republicans publicly gushed over the act and practically consecrated it as an untouchable civil rights icon.

Renewal was thought to be such a lock that a mysterious email circulated a couple of years ago that claimed that Congress would torpedo the Voting Rights Act and blacks would be again summarily kicked out the voting booth was branded as race paranoia run amok. The warning that blacks would be stripped of the vote altogether deserves laughter. The warning that their voting rights might be in trouble, however, does not.

The Voting Rights Act has always been more controversial than many have believed. The popular myth is that congressional leaders were so appalled at the shocking TV clips of Alabama state troopers battering civil rights marchers in Selma in April 1965 that they promptly passed the landmark act that restored voting rights to Southern blacks. What's forgotten is that the marchers were there in the first place because the bill was badly stalled in the Senate and the House. It took nearly five months to get the bill passed.

Senate Minority leader and Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen showered amendments on the bill that included scrapping the ban on the poll tax, exemption and escape clauses for Southern counties and the exclusion of all states outside the South. House Republicans tacked more amendments on the bill to weaken it. The fight over these amendments dragged on for weeks in Congress.

The biggest fight, however, was over the poll tax ban. The tax was the most odious and hated symbol of Southern racial exclusion. Civil rights leaders were enraged when the Senate refused to eliminate the poll tax by arguing that the ban wouldn't pass constitutional muster. House leaders agreed.

A furious Martin Luther King Jr. called the congressional stonewall of the poll tax ban an "insult and a blasphemy," and vowed to launch mass protests against the watering down move. King's threat and action worked, but only in part. Congress was horrified at the brutal attack on civil rights marchers and dumped most of the provisions tossed in to cripple the bill. But congressional leaders refused to budge on the poll tax. King read the political tea leaves and rather than risk more delays, reluctantly agreed to support the bill even without the outright poll tax ban.

The act instantly transformed Southern politics. The number of black elected officials in the South soared from a handful in 1965 to several thousand a decade later. That did not make the act any more palatable to the white South. When it came time for renewal in 1982, a red flag that signaled much of the South's disdain for the act again rose high. In memo after memo to his boss Attorney General William French Smith, then assistant attorney general John Roberts blasted the act as "intrusive interference" and flatly demanded that Reagan veto its renewal.

Last year, during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and under grilling from Sen. Edward Kennedy, Roberts effusively praised the Voting Rights Act as one our "most precious rights." In the next breath, Roberts insisted that when he lobbied for dumping the act he was only articulating and defending the Reagan administration's position on civil rights. Reagan was hostile to affirmative action and expanded civil rights protections, but the president signed the act and made no public criticism of it. Robert's memos may or may not have articulated Reagan's true thinking on the Voting Rights Act, but it did articulate the contempt many Southern conservatives had for the act.

A quarter century after the act's passage, that hasn't changed. The act didn't stall in the House because a handful of diehard House Republicans are piqued over the provision for bilingual ballots. Nearly 100 House Republicans have expressed qualms about the act and now demand that hearings be held. In the Senate, Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott drove home the South's near four-decade low-intensity fight against the act when he protested that the South was still "being treated differently." If Lott had been in the Senate in 1965, he would have led the charge to scuttle the act. As House Republican whip in 1982, he voted against renewal.

No House or Senate Republican has yet dared go so far as to say that they will vote to kill the act. That would be in horrid political taste. But the maneuvering to stall and even weaken the act is in full throttle. It's always been that way.

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