The Court & the Right to Vote: A Dissent

Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos
Demonstrators from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee about to be arrested by police for urging blacks to register to vote, Selma, Alabama, October 1963

In Bending Toward Justice, Professor Gary May describes a number of the conflicts between white supremacists in Alabama and nonviolent civil rights workers that led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965—often just called the VRA. The book also describes political developments that influenced President Lyndon Johnson to support the act in 1965, and later events that supported the congressional reenactments of the VRA signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970, by President Gerald Ford in 1975, by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, and by President George W. Bush in 2006.

May’s eminently readable book is particularly timely because the Supreme Court, on June 25, 2013, issued its decision in Shelby County v. Holder, invalidating the portion of the 2006 enactment that retained the formula used in the 1965 act to determine which states and political subdivisions must obtain the approval of the Department of Justice, or the US District Court in the District of Columbia, before changes in their election laws may become effective. That formula imposed a “preclearance” requirement on states that had maintained a “test or device” as a prerequisite to voting on November 1, 1964, and had less than a 50 percent voter registration or turnout in the 1964 presidential election. Alabama, where Shelby County is located, is one of those states. Over the dissent of Alabama-born Justice Hugo Black, the Court had upheld the preclearance provision shortly after the VRA was enacted in 1966 in South Carolina v. Katzenbach.

May’s book contains a wealth of information about the events that led to the enactment of the 1965 statute—and about the dedication and heroism of little-known participants in the events that came to national attention in 1964 and 1965. It includes both favorable and unfavorable information about well-known figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover, and about some of the methods used by whites to prevent blacks from voting and from registering to vote.

In his prologue the author makes it clear that in the 1960s in the Deep South not only were African-Americans prohibited from voting, but it was dangerous for them to attempt to do so. He describes the contrast between the oppression during the 1960s and the conditions a century earlier during the period that later became known as “Radical Reconstruction.” During the decade after the Civil War, when the South was divided into military districts occupied by federal troops, southern blacks enthusiastically embraced their newly acquired political freedom:

As many as two thousand served as state legislators, city councilmen, tax assessors, justices of the peace, jurors, sheriffs, and US marshals; fourteen black politicians entered the House of Representatives; and two became US Senators.

Although he does not identify…

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