At the top of the steps of Alabama’s elegant old Capitol, there’s a six-pointed bronze star marking the spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy. At the foot of the steps is a historical marker dedicated to black citizens who in the 1960s dared to register to vote — “a constitutional right impeded by Gov. George Wallace” — and who were met “with state-sponsored terrorism.” And somewhere beyond those two frank reminders of the past is modern-day Alabama, which may or may not be just like the rest of America. That is a question the Supreme Court will consider Wednesday. At issue is whether the guarantee of equality in Alabama, and elsewhere in the South, is the same as in the rest of the nation. The court will review — for the sixth time since passage in 1965 — Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates that federal authorities pre-approve any changes in voting laws here and in eight other states and numerous jurisdictions with a history of discrimination. It has survived each previous time.
The section is the hammer in what supporters say is the most effective civil rights legislation Congress has ever passed. They draw a straight line between the law and the election of the nation’s first African American president.
Those seeking to overturn Section 5 say it was once vitally needed and is now hopelessly outdated. “The violence, intimidation, and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains,” says the challenge filed by Shelby County, Ala., a fast-growing, mostly white suburb south of Birmingham.
It is fitting the test case comes from Alabama, where bloody resistance to African Americans’ voting rights was “particularly responsible” for making Section 5 necessary, the state concedes in its supporting brief to the Supreme Court.