A life-sized statue of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was dedicated Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner. Four hundred feet away, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in a case that may change a key provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, perhaps the most important piece of legislation granting equality to American citizens since the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery a century and a half ago.
At issue is whether a key component of the act, which requires nine predominantly Southern states and dozens of counties and townships throughout the nation -- including neighboring Kings County and other parts of California -- to obtain federal approval before making changes to voting policies. Section 5 of the act, which is being challenged by Shelby County, Ala., is intended to prevent states from making it difficult for minorities to vote. It was specifically applied to states and jurisdictions that, a half-century ago, were found to have engaged in voter suppression practices.
Shelby County argues that society has made tremendous progress in voting equality since passage of the act and that because of that progress the provision is outdated. It contends that the "preclearance" requirements make it difficult to conduct elections and violates the sovereignty of affected states, which should be on equal footing in conducting elections.
Shelby County is correct in that we as a nation have made progress. Those horrific images of police armed with dogs and water cannons attacking nonviolent protesters in the streets of Southern cities are not likely to ever return. Blacks are now routinely elected to public office throughout the nation, including the South, and we have elected our first black president to a second term.
Significant progress? Of course. Time for the Supreme Court to essentially rip out the heart of the Voting Rights Act? We think not.
A few issues lead us to believe the act, as it currently exists, must remain in place. Efforts by some states to enact photo identification requirements to vote are chief among them. Those efforts are eerily similar to the so-called "literacy tests" that were a key factor in passage of the act back in 1965. Redistricting strategies in which politicians can change voting boundaries to skew election odds in favor of specific candidates and parties by reducing the influence of minority voters is another.
Last year, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund took on, and defeated, the state of Texas over a redistricting attempt to diminish the influence of Latino voters. Using Spanish surnames, Texas officials tried to create one district where those with a tendency of not voting were concentrated into one district, while those who had a tendency to vote frequently were placed into predominantly white and Republican districts. The attempt was halted by the federal government under Section 5 of the act.
The manipulation of race for political advantage is a constantly evolving monster. The days of fire hoses and attack dogs may be long behind us, but the challenges to ensure equality for all Americans remain.
So far, all challenges to Section 5 have been upheld by the Supreme Court. In 2006, President George W. Bush properly extended the provision for another 25 years. Someday, as Shelby County contends, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act may be outdated and no longer necessary. But that day is not today.