Why the Voting Rights Act Still Matters: The Case of Jasper, Texas

It's been a year since the Supreme Court gutted the law, and racial justice remains elusive.
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Gary Cameron/Reuters

Fifty years ago last weekend, civil-rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, including a deputy sheriff, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Next Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the monumental achievements of the 20th century. Three weeks ago, on June 7, we had the 16th anniversary of the murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, after he was chained to a pickup truck by white supremacists and dragged three miles, mostly while conscious, with his headless body thrown in front of an African-American graveyard. And Wednesday marked the first anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder, the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The story of the Civil Rights Act has been told vividly and wonderfully in two new books by journalists Todd Purdum (An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and Clay Risen (The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act). Purdum brought his book to life a week ago in a talk at the Aspen Institute, weaving the remarkable tale of the miraculous passage of the bill—miraculous not so much in the fact that a bill made it through the labyrinth of the legislative process (after all, we had seen a weak and watered-down civil-rights bill pass in 1957), but that it was a strong bill. Many heroes inside and outside government made it happen. Lyndon Johnson was a towering figure, as were Hubert Humphrey, Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, and others in the civil-rights movement. Joe Rauh and others in the liberal community were also key players, and labor and the faith community were vital as well.

But it is clear from both these books that there would not have been a meaningful Civil Rights Act, much less the Voting Rights Act in 1965, without the efforts of Republicans, especially Representative Bill McCullough of Ohio, Rep. Clarence Brown of Ohio, and senators including Tom Kuchel of California, Jacob Javits of New York, and especially Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the Republican leader in the Senate. McCullough, Brown, and Dirksen were strong conservatives, deep believers in a small government that should leave business and free enterprise alone. There were many features of the Civil Rights Act that challenged those tenets. They also knew that supporting civil rights was unlikely to provide much political benefit. But these men believed that segregation was fundamentally immoral and needed to be undone. Their actions represent one of the great profiles in courage in American history.

In the list of anniversaries above, one seems a bit out of place. Why did I include James Byrd Jr? Because of Jasper, Texas, a small timber town in East Texas with a long history of brutality and racial discrimination that remains a touchstone today—and that is trying, after Shelby County, to alter its boundaries to disadvantage black voters.

Six years after James Byrd's murder, two white teenagers knocked over his headstone and wrote racial slurs on it. White-supremacist groups advertised online to sell dirt from his grave and links from the chain that dragged him to his decapitation and death. The cemetery where he is buried used to have an iron fence separating the black and white graves; it was removed after Byrd's death, but there is still no mingling of races among the grave sites. A cemetery director explained to New York Times reporter Manny Fernandez in June 2012: "Put a black here? No, no, we wouldn't do that. That would be against our custom, against our way of doing things."

Jasper is fairly evenly divided between black and white populations. It has five City Council members, four elected in districts and one at large. In 2011, there were four African-American members of the Jasper City Council, and one white member. They voted unanimously to select Rodney Pearson to be the first African-American police chief, presumably trying to alleviate the tensions that had existed between the largely white police force and the black community.

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Norm Ornstein is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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