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 If section 5 is repealed, the ground on the other side of that bridge may suddenly seem less firm.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.