How a Supreme Court Defeat Could Save Voting Rights

If the justices strike down section 5, Americans may be forced to stop enshrining the past. 

pettus-bridge.jpg In 2007, the future President Barack Obama joined in commemorating the 1965 Selma-Montgomery Voting Rights March. (Reuters)

George W. Bush said the first decision the president of the free world makes is which carpet to get in the Oval Office. When Barack Obama moved into Bush's vacated space, the carpet he chose had five quotes running around its border. They came from Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. The latter's chosen phrase was: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Although wrongly attributed to King (the quote was actually the work of Boston preacher Theodore Parker), the message was clear. The U.S. had been through a long struggle -- from Civil War to Civil Rights, through Reconstruction and Segregation -- and America had ended up with an African American in the Oval Office.

What is appealing about the story of the Civil Rights movement is its simplicity: its arc, while long, bends into a neat narrative. It can be plotted through major events that are etched into our consciousness: Brown v. Board, 1954; the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955; Little Rock, 1957; the Sit-Ins, 1960; the Freedom Rides, 1961; Birmingham and the March on Washington, 1963; the Civil Rights Act, 1964; and finally, Selma and the Voting Rights Act, 1965. Remember those events, remember those dates, and you're sure to pass your exam.

Yet if, as widely predicted (by veteran reporter Lyle Denniston and Atlantic correspondent Andrew Cohen), the present Supreme Court strikes down section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, what does that mean for the civil rights narrative? Does 1965 lose its significance? Does the arc bend away from justice?

Any blow to the Voting Rights Act is a major blow to the civil rights movement itself. "In the long saga of southern blacks' efforts to win free and equal access to the ballot, no one event meant more than the voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, in the first three months of 1965," wrote the acclaimed historian David J. Garrow. Section 5 of the act specifically targets nine historically discriminatory states that imposed a number of devices to prevent minorities from being eligible to vote. A defeat for section 5 will not be just a defeat for the bill itself. It will undermine the symbolism of everything that led to that bill.

The Voting Rights Act was the culmination of years of non-violent protest, and a crowning moment for Martin Luther King Jr. It has been argued that Lyndon B. Johnson was prepared to introduce a Voting Rights bill before the notorious incident in Selma, Alabama, when marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge were attacked by state troopers on the other side. But the incident left a prominent stain on the nation's conscience. When ABC interrupted the documentary Judgement In Nuremburg to show footage of John Lewis and others being fought back with tear gas and clubs, it led to countless comments of support and shock in both the House and Senate and swung the tide hugely in favor of the movement.

Since that time, Selma has become a larger-than-life symbol of the Civil Rights struggle and the fundamental ways it changed America. On the eve of the first African American president's inauguration, John Lewis proclaimed, "Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma." The metaphor was so powerful that New Yorker editor David Remnick alluded to it in the title of his 2010 Obama biography, The Bridge. If section 5 is repealed, the ground on the other side of that bridge may suddenly seem less firm.

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Kiran Moodley is an assistant producer for CNBC in London.

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