George W. Bush said the first decision the president of the free world makes is which carpet to get in the Oval Office. When Barack Obama moved into Bush’s vacated space, the carpet he chose had five quotes running around its border. They came from Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. The latter’s chosen phrase was: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Although wrongly attributed to King (the quote was actually the work of Boston preacher Theodore Parker), the message was clear. The U.S. had been through a long struggle — from Civil War to Civil Rights, through Reconstruction and Segregation — and America had ended up with an African American in the Oval Office. What is appealing about the story of the Civil Rights movement is its simplicity: its arc, while long, bends into a neat narrative. It can be plotted through major events that are etched into our consciousness: Brown v. Board, 1954; the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955; Little Rock, 1957; the Sit-Ins, 1960; the Freedom Rides, 1961; Birmingham and the March on Washington, 1963; the Civil Rights Act, 1964; and finally, Selma and the Voting Rights Act, 1965. Remember those events, remember those dates, and you’re sure to pass your exam. 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.
… If section 5 is repealed, it will be largely because Americans have been lulled into a false sense of complacency. Those who celebrate the Civil Rights movement have put too much emphasis on past events and failed to convey a sense of ongoing urgency. More focus needs to be on what was not achieved by the 1965 act. For instance, school desegregation has not yielded the hoped-for social and educational dividends, and the enfranchisement of Southern African Americans has not toppled white domination in the South’s state politics.
None of this is to suggest that supporters of civil rights should welcome a repeal of section 5 with open arms. Rather, a defeat should be taken as an opportunity to turn away from the narrative of the inevitable arc once and for all. In order to truly preserve equality, Americans need to recognize that the struggle is ever-evolving. As the Reverend L. Francis Griffin, a longtime NAACP leader in Virginia, explained in 1979, “There is no voluntary movement toward greater equality. … This is still a battleground, the lines of separation still exist. … It’s a cold war now, and I look for it to go on.”