Forty-eight years ago Thursday, five hundred or so activists gathered to march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery to protest the denial of voting rights to blacks in the state. They didn’t make it. The march was attacked by state and local police, who were cheered on by crowds of white onlookers in an assault so brutal that it has come to be known as Bloody Sunday. Seventeen people, including future congressman John Lewis, were hospitalized. Last weekend, an array of activists and elected officials gathered in Selma, as they have for many years, to commemorate that march. But this year, the commemoration had a special significance: it came just days after the Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby v. Holder, a case that threatens to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act, which might never have passed were it not for the aborted Bloody Sunday march and the chaotic, violent tableau playing out in Alabama. If we take nothing else from this anniversary, it’s a reminder that the history of race in this country resembles a pendulum, not an arrow.
The debates over Shelby v. Holder are not solely about the future of the Act but about the claims of the past on the present, and the fragile nature of progress. This nation’s racial history has been plagued by a law of unintended consequences; moments of apparent progress have opened the doors to regression. The possible gutting of the Voting Rights Act in the midst of a black Presidency isn’t contradictory—it’s consistent with the long-term trend. In 2007, as Barack Obama’s campaign gained momentum, a friend who’d worked on Jesse Jackson’s 1988 bid said to me, “If that guy wins, the V.R.A. is out of here.” He wasn’t being cynical so much as historical—and, if the consensus on the Court’s perspective on Shelby holds true, prescient.
There is no way to excuse the three-fifths clause of the Constitution—you can’t even rightly claim it as some kind of example of honorable compromise, as the president of Emory University, James Wagner, tried to do in a column in his school’s magazine recently, unless your definition of a successful compromise extends to a civil war and six hundred thousand dead—but the successful efforts to excise that clause from the document yielded conditions that were in some ways even worse than those that had prevailed under it. The Fourteenth Amendment established that the recently-emancipated slaves were citizens, and that in place of the old system of counting only sixty per cent of the slave population, representation would be determined by “counting the whole number of persons in each state.” In political terms, the Amendment effectively increased the population of the South by 1.6 million people. On its heels came the Fifteenth Amendment, which secured the right of black men to vote. The amendments, in conjunction with the election of hundreds of blacks to political office during Reconstruction, filled some observers with the hope that the nation was well on its way to reconciling its practices with its ideals, becoming what we would now call “post-racial.” But Southerners effectively nullified the Fifteenth Amendment through concentrated, unrestrained violence targeted at black voters, and the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment that was intended to punish that kind of behavior, by reducing the representation of any state that denied those eligible to vote the right to do so, was ignored.