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.

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.

A timeline developed by the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C. (I am on the board) tells the following story: The only radio station in Jasper, owned by the mayor, Mike Lout, began a campaign of vilification against Pearson, on air and on its website. A group of white citizens calling themselves the League of Concerned Citizens organized to recall only the black City Council members in order to fire Pearson. The radio station posted information about the league and how citizens could sign recall petitions. Only whites signed the petitions. Although the city precincts included a polling place at a black church, the city instead used Jasper County polling places, none of which were located in the black community. Leading up to the recall, KJAS broadcast warnings that citizens with outstanding fines or tickets could be subject to arrest if they showed up to vote.

In November 2011, two black councilmembers were recalled. Immediately after new, white councilmembers were in place, they fired Pearson. He sued the city, and in February of this year, the city paid him $800,000 to settle the claim. Two other co-defendants paid him an additional $31,000. Lout has denied that the firing was related to Pearson's race, and the city's attorneys said the settlement was not an admission of guilt.

In 1988, Jasper tried to annex several predominantly white areas into the city. Under the Voting Rights Act, the city needed preclearance, which the Justice Department denied because it would dilute black voting strength. The city was forced to move from all at-large elections to district ones as a precondition of getting the annexations approved. Now, with no fear of preclearance, the City Council is moving to annex three predominantly white neighborhoods, enabling the city to redraw the City Council lines to dilute any potential of electing black councilmembers.

Of course, the fact is that America is a radically different place than it was five decades ago. For those of us old enough to have seen "whites only" water fountains, and who remember poll taxes and racially biased literacy tests, the changes have been truly revolutionary. The rank racism in Jasper, Texas, may be an anomaly, a throwback to an earlier, ugly time.

The rationale Roberts used to blow up Section V of the Voting Rights Act was that it had made a huge difference, and that the injustices and evils of the past had been dramatically ameliorated. There was no longer any need for this protection. Of course, as soon as the decision came down, Texas and several other states that had been included in the VRA's protective mantle moved to restrict and suppress voting. Texas moved within two hours of the decision! The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has noted that since Shelby, 10 jurisdictions in seven states that would have been subject to preclearance review have enacted potentially discriminatory changes in voting rules.

There is a bipartisan effort in Congress to pass a new Voting Rights Act to respond to the Shelby County decision—a decision that overturned the most recent revision of the VRA by near-unanimous margins in both houses of Congress. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a leader in that revision, has been among the contemporary crop of Republicans in Congress who have supported the effort. Eric Cantor, still the majority leader, has been open to it. We will soon see if Cantor's successor, Kevin McCarthy, picks up that baton. And we will see if Senator Thad Cochran, who owes his primary victory in Mississippi to African-American voters there, repays their support by becoming a sponsor of the VRA revision.

We are not expecting much from the final months of the 113th Congress. But there is time for Cantor, McCarthy, and their colleagues to replicate what McCullough, Dirksen, and others did 50 years ago. Jasper, Texas; Augusta, Georgia; the state of North Carolina; and many other places demonstrate why—contrary to Roberts's opinion—that action is necessary.