States’ rights is code for discrimination. A century and a half ago, some states asserted the right to leave the union. We fought the nation’s bloodiest conflict, then admitted the traitors back into the country on generous terms. Though our Confederate brothers and sisters died defending the enslavement of African-Americans, we did this in the name of peace and forgiveness.
Fast forward, to the 1960’s, all Americans were free from legalized slavery — but blacks were still routinely denied the ballot. Some states blocked access to the ballot with the same ferocity, and on the same grounds, that they stood in schoolhouse doors with ax handles — states’ rights. Denial of the ballot was based on the right of states to control all election procedures.
By eradicating widespread disenfranchisement in Dixie and in urban areas outside the Old South, the Voting Rights Act – enacted Aug. 6, 1965 – proved one of the most powerful pieces of federal legislation. It ranks with the 14th Amendment and the Commerce Clause in changing the lives of Americans everywhere — for the better.
It ushered in what we call “King Democracy” as in Martin Luther King Jr., on the way to forging a more perfect union and putting “Jeffersonian Democracy,” where democracy coexisted with slavery and then legal segregation, behind us.
The Voting Rights Act did not come, top-down, from Pennsylvania Avenue.
It came bottom up — on the road from Selma to Montgomery. Through Freedom Summer and the work of young men like Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney – two whites and one black — murdered while registering black voters in the Deep South. Through the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. From the sacrifices of so many unknown martyrs and marchers the Voting Rights Act was won.
Like any new piece of transformative legislation, it took time for blacks and progressive whites to fully use the Voting Rights Act.
Section 5 is a powerful tool — and a near-anomaly in the law. It requires prior federal review before states or other covered jurisdictions can make changes to voting processes and procedures.
But its power derives from the circumstances surrounding enforcement. Some jurisdictions were so determined to deny minority groups the right to vote that federal review was needed to protect against potential discriminatory changes — intentional or non-intentional — during the electoral process.
Eventually, the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988 helped usher in a new era of minority political participation. In addition, thousands of blacks, Latinos, Asians and progressives were elected in districts where minority voting strength could be felt — often after suing to break down the barriers that diluted the minority power.
Motor Voter was also an important milestone in the march to full enfranchisement. Potential voters could now register at the public library, in school, at public agency offices and in door-to-door campaigns mounted by activists. They could establish their eligibility in dozens of ways: Utility bills, passports, birth certificates and student I.D. cards were all acceptable forms of identification.