There must be some cosmic significance (or perhaps the gods of politics are just into irony) that the 50th anniversary of the great March on Washington in August of 1963 is being celebrated at the same time that the United States Justice Department is suing the great state of Texas over changes in voting rules that could well prevent minority voters from casting ballots.
The great theme in all the coverage leading up to the actual anniversary of the March and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarkable “I Have a Dream Speech” has been the phrase, “we have come so far and we still have work to do.”
Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was with King that day 50 years ago, told an Atlanta television station, “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we must continue to go forward and we must never ever become bitter or hostile, we must continue to walk with peace, love and nonviolence to create a truly multiracial democratic society. Our country is a better country and we are a better people. The signs that I saw before making it to Washington, they’re gone and they will not return, and the only places our children will see those signs will be in a book, in a museum or on a video. So when people say nothing has changed, I say come and walk in my shoes,” Lewis said.
The Congressman then adds that Dr. King would tell us we still have work to do. Indeed, America, we still have work to do.
The Pew Research Center’s recent study on “Race in America” helps measure just how much work remains. Among the findings in the Pew study: Fewer than 50% of Americans believe the country has made substantial progress in the direction of racial equality since Dr. King envisioned the day when his “four little children” would live in nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” About half of those surveyed said a “lot more needs to be done” to create a truly color blind society.
What is perhaps most discouraging in the Pew study is the retreat – not the forward progress – that has taken place on key measures over the last 20-plus years. For example, the gaps between whites and blacks on measures like median income and total household income have actually grown in that period when measured in 2012 dollars. Put another way, there is work to be done to get back to where the country stood in 1980. There’s more. Black Americans are three times more likely than whites to live in poverty and black home ownership is 60% of that for whites. Black rates of marriage are lower and out-of-wedlock births higher than for whites.
It is hard to look at all these numbers and wonder why John Lewis maintains his optimism until one remembers that he was nearly killed marching for voting rights in Alabama in 1965. He’s the first to say that such politically motivated violence has – mostly – disappeared in America. What hasn’t disappeared, it would seem, are efforts to make it more difficult for people of color, poor people and the elderly to vote and participate in a meaningful way in our politics. Texas is currently ground zero in this debate since the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision threw out the requirement that Texas and other mostly southern states need to gain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before changing election laws.
Texas hardly waited until the ink was dry on Chief Justice John Robert’s opinion wiping out a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act before implementing a new voter ID law that many observers believe will make it more difficult for some folks – minorities, the poor and the elderly – to vote. Texas is also going forward with a redistricting plan that many believe is stacked against minority voters.
In announcing the Texas lawsuit Attorney General Eric Holder said: “The Department will take action against jurisdictions that attempt to hinder access to the ballot box, no matter where it occurs. We will keep fighting aggressively to prevent voter disenfranchisement. We are determined to use all available authorities, including remaining sections of the Voting Rights Act, to guard against discrimination and, where appropriate, to ask federal courts to require preclearance of new voting changes. This represents the Department’s latest action to protect voting rights, but it will not be our last.”
The political reaction in Texas was predictable as Politico reported. “The filing of endless litigation in an effort to obstruct the will of the people of Texas is what we have come to expect from Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama,” said Gov. Rick Perry. “We will continue to defend the integrity of our elections against this administration’s blatant disregard for the 10th Amendment.”
“Facts mean little to a politicized Justice Department bent on inserting itself into the sovereign affairs of Texas and a lame-duck administration trying to turn our state blue,” Sen. John Cornyn said. “As Texans we reject the notion that the federal government knows what’s best for us. We deserve the freedom to make our own laws and we deserve not to be insulted by a Justice Department committed to scoring cheap political points.”
Consider this tidbit from the earlier mentioned Pew survey. “Participation rates for blacks in presidential elections has lagged behind those of whites for most of the past half century but has been rising since 1996. Buoyed by the historic candidacies of Barack Obama, blacks nearly caught up with whites in 2008 and surpassed them in 2012, when 67% of eligible blacks cast ballots, compared with 64% of eligible whites.” We know, of course, that blacks tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. The black vote was critical in both Obama’s elections for the White House and helped turn once solidly Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina competitive for a Democratic presidential candidate. Many experts think Texas is next, but only if the fast growing African-American and Latino voters in Texas have a chance to vote in growing numbers.
The More Things Change
In 1949, a young United States Senator from Texas made his maiden speech on the floor of the Senate defending the southern use of the filibuster to turn back all manner of civil rights legislation. In that maiden speech the young senator talked about federal legislation to outlaw the poll tax, which was of course in an earlier day designed to keep blacks from voting, when he said such heavy handed government intrusion was “wholly unconstitutional and violate[s] the rights of the States.” The south, the senator said, certainly didn’t discriminate, these things were being handled and whats more the south really didn’t appreciate the federal government interfering with its business. State’s rights and all that.
It’s almost as if Lyndon Johnson in 1949 could have been writing Rick Perry’s press releases in 2013. Johnson, famously and historically, changed over time and signed the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Still, from 1949 to 2013, the similarity of the political rhetoric from the young Lyndon to the blow-dried Rick Perry is stunning. Neither one talks about race, but it is all about race.
Under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, 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.” There is nothing in that amendment about “sovereign states” or that states “deserve the freedom to make” their own laws. The amendment is not ambiguous. It doesn’t require a lot of analysis. The words speak for themselves. The Voting Rights Act was the means Congress chose in 1965 to enforce the amendment until the Court’s recent ruling. So much has changed and yet so little has changed.
For much longer than a century the basic act of citizenship – the right to vote – was systematically denied millions of citizens. If we consider nothing else as we mark the anniversary of that historic March on a hot August day 50 years ago, we would be wise to consider, with all the work that remains to be done to “perfect” our Union, that we cannot tolerate policies and politics that actually cause black Americans to lose hard fought ground; ground we should all be proud we have gained since that great March.