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The 1965 Voting Rights Act versus 2013 Jim Crow reform

By Ken L. Harris

We thought we had escaped the Jim Crow laws established and enacted between 1876 and 1965, shortly after the emancipation of slaves. If we don’t quite remember the mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities within the southern states comprising the former Confederacy, starting with 1890’s “separate but equal” status for African Americans, we are headed back there now.

The Jim Crow laws separated white from Black, putting African Americans in inferior conditions based on class, race and status, systematizing the economic, educational, and social inequalities and disparities that still persist today.

The rebellion of the southern United States and the resultant Confederacy steered patterns of segregation in housing, enforced by covenants, bank lending procedures and job discrimination — including discriminatory union practices — for decades.

Remember, Jim Crow laws enforced the segregation of public schools, public places and public transportation. Keep in mind that these laws followed the 1800–1866 Black Codes, which had previously restricted the civil rights and liberties of African Americans with no pretense of equality.

The U.S. Supreme Court just handed down a decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder that gutted a signature achievement of the Civil Rights Movement: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It places millions of African Americans, people of color, women and many who had gained freedom from slavery, the American apartheid system (Jim Crow) and other vicious schemes of oppression, racial profiling and discrimination at the mercy of a dysfunctional Supreme Court neurotic about addressing ideological transgressions as opposed to just doing the right thing.

History now has the opportunity to repeat itself — an American history that most want to forget, even the perpetrators of the racist regimes that enforced hatred, incarceration and the spread of deranged ideological beliefs.

While I hoped the Supreme Court would make the right decision, knowing American history and after hearing the arguments, it is hard to be shocked by the result. Justice Scalia even described the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act as “the perpetuation of a racial entitlement.”

In my mind, this is an attempt to deflect a discussion of immortal wounds from America’s past and the predators who inflicted the lashes that kept Blacks away from the polls. History must not repeat itself.

For Black people, voting has never been an entitlement; it is a freedom that has been earned through extraordinary sacrifice, blood, poverty, economic limitations, severe inequalities, generational disparities, systematic oppression and discrimination inflicted upon free slaves and their descendants.

Because the right to vote is not explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution, ideological state legislators have been attacking that very right in states across the country, including in the great state of Michigan. That is why we need a constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote for all with protections against reemerging cynical acts of oppression conducted throughout southern states.

Without an amendment guaranteeing the right and freedom to vote, each state sets its own electoral rules, leading to confusing and sometimes contradictory policies with regard to polling hours, registration requirements, voting equipment, ex-felon rights and even ballot design. The result is an electoral system divided — separate and unequal.

For decades, the Voting Rights Act has protected voters in pockets of the country with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices, blocking more than 1,500 laws aimed at making it harder for us to vote. Just this past election, it allowed the Justice Department to block attempts to manipulate the voter rolls by politicians in Texas, South Carolina and Florida. Now that the Court has overturned Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, previously protected states such as these are now in limbo.

Current right-wing ideologue efforts to make it harder for people to vote are not bound by geography or a history of racial discrimination — they are widespread, targeted and coordinated.

When you dig into the types of right-wing ideologue voter suppression bills that are spreading across the country — discriminatory voter ID laws, proof-of-citizenship requirements, laws that prevent groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote from organizing registration drives, attempts to purge people with minority names from the voter rolls and limits on weekend voting hours in urban communities — it is clear that far-right politicians are trying to keep the rising majority of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, immigrants, young people and women  away from the polls.

The Voting Rights Act was the result of decades of hard work, advocacy, protests, marches and courage in the face of death, lynchings, and isolated incidents of extreme violence and oppression. It was one of the crowning achievements of a generation and cannot be lost because of a lack of continued advocacy.

I ask all African Americans, people of color, women and other minorities who have experienced voter intimidation, discrimination and oppression to join me in letting the Supreme Court and Congress know that voting should be the fundamental right and freedom of all citizens, regardless of race, creed, color, sex or ethnicity.

Ken L. Harris is president/CEO of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, Inc.

 

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