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  Vernellia R. Randall
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The University of Dayton
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Reaffirmation or Requiem for the Voting Rights Act?

Copyright 1996, The American Civil Liberties Union

As Reconstruction drew to a close more than 100 years ago, the several hundred African Americans elected to serve in Southern state legislatures and in Congress had dwindled to a handful, and the enactment and enforcement of a range of discriminatory laws that excluded black people from the mainstream of life -- the system known as "Jim Crow" -- had become pervasive.

Reversing this pattern of exclusion has taken most of the 20th century. In the present decade alone, thanks to districting changes made after the 1990 census, progress has been astonishing. Today, Congress has a critical mass of 40 black members who comprise the influential Congressional Black Caucus, and nearly 5,000 African Americans hold elective office across the South.

This sea change is the direct result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, probably the most effective civil rights law ever enacted. The Act immediately outlawed the worst Jim Crow laws, such as literacy tests and other devices that kept African Americans out of the voting booth. Through active federal enforcement and the persistent efforts of civil rights groups, including the ACLU, the Act has begun to meaningfully empower racial minorities. And gradually, through court decisions and Congressional amendments, it has become a weapon against the more subtle schemes that have rendered minority votes all but meaningless.

The most common of these schemes is the at-large election, which effectively drowns the will of minority voters in a sea of white majority voices. When, as has usually been the case, the white majority votes as a racial bloc that is hostile to all minority candidates, none of the latter can be elected. To counter that situation, the Voting Rights Act has been used to compel the creation of multiple districts within a jurisdiction, with minorities being the majority of voters in some of those districts. It is these predominantly minority districts that almost exclusively elect minorities to office.The right to choose one's representatives in the voting booth is the linchpin of a free society, without which it is often impossible to exercise other rights. But just as the doors to the halls of government have begun to open, whites across the South, abetted by the United States Supreme Court, are rushing to close them again. If they succeed, this century will end as it began: with the demise of a second "Reconstruction," and a return to the days of all-white government.

The tide shifted ominously in 1993 when the Supreme Court, on the last day of its term, delivered a decision in the case of Shaw v. Reno that enabled white voters to challenge the "bizarre" shape of a majority/black Congressional district in North Carolina -- even though oddly shaped districts have long been tolerated in nonracial cases (see page 23). The decision was narrow, legally speaking, but devastating in its implications. White voters and judges have seized upon Shaw as an invitation to question the propriety of all race-conscious districting, on every level of government. Suddenly, the Voting Rights Act and its mandate to create equal opportunity at the ballot box face the most serious challenge since 1965.

In this 30th anniversary year of the Voting Rights Act, the nation stands at a crossroads. Two critical cases are jointly before the Supreme Court, both of which challenge predominantly minority Congressional districts, in Georgia and in Louisiana. The Court's decisions in these cases will go a long way toward determining whether the country turns back the clock and disfranchises a whole segment of society once again, or reaffirms and strengthens its commitment to building a truly representative democracy, with liberty and justice for all.

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Same level:
[ Introduction ] HISTORY ] SHAW V. RENO ] Current Supreme Court Cases ] Race Conscious Districting ] Conclusion ] Glossary ] Section 2 - Voting Rights Act ]
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Parent Level:
Voting Rights Act Decision Draws Senator's Ire ] Voting Rights and African Americans ] Debunking an Urban Legend: Death of Voting Rights ] Reaffirmation or Requiem for the Voting Rights Act ] Race and Election Irregularities on November 7 2000 ] Bush v Gore Through the Lens of Race ] Felon Disenfranchisement: the Modern Day Poll Tax ] Effect of the Voter Rights Act on Indians ] Reconstruction and Felon Disenfranchisement ]
[Race and Racial Groups] [Citizenship Rights]  [Justice and Race] [Patterns of Basic Needs] [Intersectionality Issues] [Human Rights]


Always Under Construction!

Always Under Construction!

Copyright @ 1997, 2008.
Vernellia R. Randall

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In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, some material on this website is provided for comment, background information, research and/or educational purposes only, without permission from the copyright owner(s), under the "fair use" provisions of the federal copyright laws. These materials may not be distributed for other purposes without permission of the copyright owner(s).

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