In the debate over the future of the Voting Rights Act , it sometimes becomes apparent that certain members of the Supreme Court are either oblivious to our nation’s recent history or willfully ignore it. Justice Antonin Scalia made this abundantly clear in his comments during the Feb. 27 oral argument in Shelby County v. Holder , statements that he repeated in a speech on April 15. To Scalia, the Voting Rights Act — especially Section 5, which requires covered states to submit any changes in voting practices to the Justice Department or a Washington court for approval — is a “racial entitlement” and a violation of state sovereignty. In his view, it unfairly and unnecessarily treats seven Southern states, plus Alaska, Arizona and parts of six others, differently from states not covered by the act. This month, according to the Wall Street Journal, he called the act a form of “racial preferment” that affected only African Americans while ignoring the white population.
Such statements indicate that Scalia is woefully ignorant of the legislation’s history. Because of our nation’s painful legacy of racial injustice, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has often been used to safeguard black voters specifically, but its protections extend to all Americans regardless of skin color, as was vividly demonstrated in the period after its passage.
Enactment of the Voting Rights Act also led to the abolition of the poll tax. So in May 1966, African Americans were able to vote freely for the first time in an off-year primary election. Across the South, many blacks sought a host of elected offices, from county sheriff to seats in state legislatures. In Alabama, a Democratic candidate for governor, Attorney General Richmond Flowers, vigorously campaigned for black votes. If elected, he promised, he would appoint blacks to positions in his administration — men and women active in the civil rights movement, he pledged, not “just a few Uncle Toms.”
The favorite to win in Alabama, however, was Flowers’s opponent, Lurleen Wallace, a stand-in for her husband, George, the gubernatorial incumbent who was ineligible to run because of term limits. A vote for the Wallace ticket would be a vote for segregation; George Wallace had been the scourge of the civil rights movement in Alabama and had actively incited racial hatred to obtain the support of white voters.