When Lyndon Johnson finally decided to double-down on civil rights legislation in 1965 and push for a federal voting rights act he began the political effort by delivering one of his most eloquent and important speeches.
Having already conceded that passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would cause his Democratic Party to lose the south for a generation – a prediction that has turned out to be way too modest – Johnson, the former Congressman and Senator from Texas, did what politicians too rarely do. He appealed to Americans to live up to their proud ideals and then he put the power of his presidency behind voting rights for all Americans.
“Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult,” Johnson said in a television speech on the evening of March 15, 1965. “But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”
Congress debated Johnson’s proposed legislation throughout the summer of ’65 with both the president and the Democratic leaders of Congress knowing that Republican votes were essential to passage since southern Democrats were almost to a man opposed to a federal voting rights act (VRA). Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois is a political hero for his role in securing passage of the historic legislation. In a striking parallel to the dilemma national Republicans face today over immigration legislation, Dirksen realized in 1965 that the stakes were enormous for the GOP if it failed to secure passage of a law to help African-Americans gain full citizenship.
“This involves more than you,” Dirksen told one of his colleagues, as recounted in Neil MacNeil’s wonderful biography. “It’s the party,” Dirksen pleaded. “Don’t’ drop me in the mud.”
Dirksen eventually rounded up the GOP votes necessary to end a filibuster and the Voting Rights Act passed the Senate by a vote of 77-19. The House vote was equally lopsided – 333-85 – with virtually all Representatives and Senators from the south voting “no.” When Johnson went before Congress to press for his legislation – here’s a segment – you can catch a glimpse of southern members, like North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, refusing to applaud some of LBJ’s strongest lines.
(Here is one other historical footnote: Then-Idaho Congressman George Hansen, an ultra-conservative Republican, was alone among Pacific Northwest members and one of just 85 House votes against the Voting Rights Act. Most who voted “no” contended the law was unconstitutional because it intruded on state’s rights to establish voting procedures.)
In 1970, again in 1975 and then in 1982 and again in 2006 four Republican presidents – Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush – signed extensions of the Voting Rights Act. In each case Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep the Act in place, including the controversial “preclearance” provision that was at the heart of the recent Supreme Court decision that effectively ruled the law invalid.
So extensive was the Congressional work on the Voting Rights Act extension back in 2006 that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg cited the record in her recent dissent in the court’s 5-4 decision.
“The House and Senate Judiciary Committees held 21 hearings, heard from scores of witnesses, received a number of investigative reports and other written documentation of continuing discrimination in covered jurisdictions. In all, the legislative record Congress compiled filled more than 15,000 pages,” Ginsberg wrote. “The compilation presents countless ‘examples of flagrant racial discrimination’ since the last re-authorization; Congress also brought to light systematic evidence that ‘intentional racial discrimination in voting remains so serious and widespread in covered jurisdictions that section 5 preclearance is still needed.’”
Ginsberg also noted pointedly that the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870 in the wake of our bloody Civil War, specifically grants to Congress “the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” The Voting Rights Act was that “appropriate legislation” in 1965 and remained so until Chief Justice John Roberts and the other conservatives on the Court substituted their judgment for that of the U.S. Congress.
From the days of Earl Warren’s tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, through every presidency from Johnson’s to Bill Clinton’s, conservatives have railed against the scourge of “activist judges,” who “legislate from the bench.” Countless speeches have made from the local Rotary Club to the floor of the Senate condemning “liberal” judges who did not merely interpret the law, but “make the law.” It was good political rhetoric and arguably, at least once in a while, it was true. But the recent split decision on the Voting Rights Act should once and forever put the lie to the charge that it is only liberal judicial activists who wear the black robes.
Chief Justice Roberts opines in the case Shelby County (Alabama) v. Holder that America “has changed” since 1965 and that continuing to apply the same standards to evaluate voting fairness for African Americans in the states of the old Confederacy (and a couple of others) fails to take into account those changes. What the very conservative Chief Justice does not confront is the political process, the hearings, the testimony, the reports and first-hand experience that informed the Congress first in 1965 then in four subsequent sessions to keep the landmark law – and the precleareance provision on the books.
There is no nice way to say what Mr. Justice Roberts did other than to admit that he, and his four like-minded conservative colleagues, substituted their judgment for that of the Congress and a conservative Republican president. That action should forever re-write the definition of “judicial activism.”
“When confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination,” Justice Ginsberg wrote, “and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress’ power to act is at its height.” An eloquent way of saying – leave the lawmaking to the lawmakers.
Regardless of how individual members of Congress feel about the Voting Rights Act, and we can assume based upon the legislative history that the vast majority of members support the Act, any Congressman or Senator should be taken aback by the level of judicial activism of the Roberts Court. (One wonders what Idaho’s two lawyer-senators think of this ruling both on political and Constitutional grounds. I have yet to see them questioned on the subject.)
Rare in modern times has the expressed will of Congress been so manhandled as in Shelby County decision. In light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, President Obama’s recent remarks on race in America and the fact that several once-covered jurisdictions – Texas, for example – have already moved to change voting requirements in a way that many experts believe will make it more difficult for many Americans to vote, it is worth remembering more words from Lyndon Johnson on that night in 1965 when he spoke so profoundly about the right to vote.
“There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem,” Johnson said. “And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.” Progress has been made, but we have more distance to go to solve that problem and again, as in 1965, Congress must act.