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. 

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.

Of course, many will argue that crossing the bridge means leaving the past behind once and for all. They will insist that section 5 is no longer necessary in a country with an African American in the Oval Office -- and with countless others in elected positions across the country. In 1964, only 6.7% of African Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote. (Fewer were eligible to vote for LBJ than for William McKinley in 1896.). Today, Mississippi has 49 black state representatives and one black U.S. congressman, Bennie Thompson. As Texas Governor Rick Perry has suggested, section 5 places a particular burden on nine states, based on events that happened generations ago. A law that sought to preserve equality is now, in fact, enforcing a form of inequality.

There are holes in this reasoning, but it does highlight the greatest vulnerability of the Civil Rights movement: It places too much importance on past events and the way we've enshrined them in our national memory. As noted by many historians, the movement is confined in most teaching to a specific time frame, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott and ending with King's assassination. But the fight for equality didn't just spring into being with Rosa Parks. Many point to Truman's civil rights committee and the New Deal as important moments in the creation of the movement.

More importantly, the struggle didn't end with the Supreme Court's ruling. A recent New York Times article reported that since 1965, the federal government has objected to voting changes in Mississippi 1973 times, the majority in the past 30 years since the Act was renewed. And white politicians continue to use tactics like gerrymandering to break up the power of racial voting blocs throughout the South.

If section 5 is repealed, it will be largely because Americans have been lulled into a false sense of complacency. Those who celebrate the Civil Rights movement have put too much emphasis on past events and failed to convey a sense of ongoing urgency. More focus needs to be on what was not achieved by the 1965 act. For instance, school desegregation has not yielded the hoped-for social and educational dividends, and the enfranchisement of Southern African Americans has not toppled white domination in the South's state politics.

None of this is to suggest that supporters of civil rights should welcome a repeal of section 5 with open arms. Rather, a defeat should be taken as an opportunity to turn away from the narrative of the inevitable arc once and for all. In order to truly preserve equality, Americans need to recognize that the struggle is ever-evolving. As the Reverend L. Francis Griffin, a longtime NAACP leader in Virginia, explained in 1979, "There is no voluntary movement toward greater equality. ... This is still a battleground, the lines of separation still exist. ... It's a cold war now, and I look for it to go on."