In a condescending but shallow response to a Huffington Post piece written last week by my colleague Emily Phelps and me, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto accuses us of appealing to “emotion” and wallowing in “nostalgia for the heroism of the civil rights movement half a century ago.” Our piece mourned the recent death of Lawrence Guyot, a civil rights hero who was repeatedly “challenged, jailed and beaten” in his efforts to register black voters in Mississippi in the 1960s, while making broader points about the continued need for the law — the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — that represents one of the most important accomplishments produced by the struggles of Mr. Guyot and his civil rights movement compatriots.
Forgive us for getting a bit worked up in explaining that Mr. Guyot’s untimely death coincides with a time when conservatives are seeking simultaneously to enact laws that suppress the vote and to have their conservative majority on the Supreme Court strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, but the strongest argument in favor of the Act is not based on emotion, it’s based on the Constitution. Mr. Taranto accuses us of not having “a lot to say about the Constitution,” but this is willful blindness on Taranto’s part. Unlike Mr. Taranto, who writes opinion columns for a living, my organization, Constitutional Accountability Center, produces scholarship and writes legal briefs. For the last three years, dating back even before the Shelby County case was filed in 2010, CAC has filed briefs, written reports and authored numerous blog posts that set out why the text and history of the Fifteenth Amendment support the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act.
As history shows, the Framers of the Fifteenth Amendment recognized that the hard-won gains towards what Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” would be frustrated unless Congress had the power to protect the right to vote against all forms of racial discrimination in voting, whether heavy-handed or subtle. The Framers knew that states hostile to the Fifteenth Amendment could use their power to regulate elections to frustrate the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee, and made sure to give Congress the power to secure to racial minorities full enjoyment of the right to vote. Taranto is loath to admit it, but, on any faithful reading of our Constitution, Congress has the power of selecting the means of protecting one of our most cherished constitutional rights from racial discrimination.