Martin Luther King Jr. marched famously from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in March 1965 in a campaign that helped put the Voting Rights Act onto President Lyndon Johnson’s desk. But King didn’t live long enough to witness even the first legislative extension of the act in 1970. In fact, his murder in Memphis happened long before it became clear that the controversial federal law had succeeded, grandly, in protecting black citizens from discriminatory voting policies and practices in the Old South and elsewhere. Although its passage seemed impossible even two years before it was signed, the law was renewed five times by Congress over the next 41 years—the last time, in 2006, with extraordinary bipartisan support. Were King alive today, wizened at the age of 85, it’s likely he would have the same perspective that many of his still-alive-and-kicking civil rights contemporaries have about what the Voting Rights Act accomplished, where it failed and why the U.S. Supreme Court’s renunciation of it last June was so profoundly premature.
But hope springs eternal for the civil rights community, especially this time of year, and what the conservative justices broke with their decision in Shelby County v. Holder a bipartisan group of lawmakers is now trying to mend—unveiling new voting rights legislation last Thursday that would, among other things, create a modern new national “coverage formula” under Section 4 of the statute for determining when a state warrants federal supervision over its voting laws. The measure also would expand the breadth of Section 3 of the law to make it easier for aggrieved citizens to block discriminatory voting laws successfully.
The new measure isn’t nearly as bold as the original it would amend—Washington either isn’t convinced that it needs to be or isn’t willing to spend the political capital to find out. It seems that lawmakers are willing to buy into the proposition, best expressed by the Supreme Court’s majority in Shelby County, that federal oversight over voting should only be as broad as it needs to be to halt discrimination in voting, and since discrimination in voting is far less severe than it was in 1965, it needn’t be very broad indeed. But tell that to the black voter in North Carolina, who heard the precinct chair of Buncombe County’s Republican Party tell a “Daily Show” correspondent in October, “if [the voter ID] law hurts the whites, so be it. If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.” At a time when the country pauses to remember the work of Dr. King, it’s clear many of his dreams remain unfulfilled.
“So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself,” King once said, and so the timing of the announcement of the voting rights amendment is no accident—coming mere days before the national holiday that honors King’s memory. Indeed, lawmakers looking to reconstruct the Voting Rights Act are eagerly tapping into the power of King’s legacy. Nearly a half century after his death, King remains the preeminent symbol of the civil rights movement. And until its dismantling last year by the High Court, the VRA stood as one of the most enduring legislative victories that movement achieved. But creating a meaningful fix isn’t easy, and the path ahead is uncertain, even for a moderate measure like this one that already has Republican support and historical precedence. Congressional politics are very different today than they were in 1965, or even in 2006, the last time this law was debated on Capitol Hill. Even as liberals decry what’s been omitted from the new legislation conservatives are wondering, aloud, whether any such remedy is necessary at all.