Long after he had left his career as a civil rights lawyer to become a justice on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall described his 1944 success in a case striking down all-white primary elections in Texas as his “greatest victory.” This is an astonishing statement for a man who was the architect and chief litigator of the most important civil rights case of the 20th century, Brown vs. Board of Education. But Marshall recognized that breaking down the stranglehold on exclusive white political power was as crucial to defeating Southern white supremacy as dismantling segregation in education. Despite Marshall’s victory in the Texas case, it took 20 years and the activism of thousands before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 provided the tools to protect the right of blacks to participate equally in the political process. On Saturday and Sunday, thousands converged on Selma, Ala., to commemorate March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday,” and the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery that led to the passage of the act.
But it is ironic that as Selma is commemorated this month, the Voting Rights Act lies critically wounded by a 2013 Supreme Court decision and that an effort to fix that damage cannot even get a hearing in Congress. Although the Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized three times with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, there is as yet no Republican co-sponsor for the Senate bill and there has been no hearing in the House on proposed bills that would restore what the Supreme Court destroyed.
The Voting Rights Act, which President Reagan called the crown jewel of civil rights legislation, was written to end not only existing voter discrimination but also new methods of disenfranchisement that might be devised in the future. It required jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to submit changes in their election rules to federal authorities for review. That system was in place for 48 years until the Supreme Court abruptly ended it in Shelby County (Alabama) vs. Holder, saying the “preclearance” sites and requirements were based on data and formulas that must be updated by Congress.