Context is important. It could be that the events of October 1973 changed everything in America forever – because that Oil Embargo ruined our automobile industry, which in turn ruined things for all labor unions, which in turn ruined things for American workers, forever, and that Saturday Night Massacre, which made Nixon’s impeachment inevitable, ruined our politics forever. That’s an interesting argument, but the Kennedy assassination also may have changed everything, or the Martin Luther King assassination did, or 9/11 did. Choose a moment in history. Any moment will do. Something happened that made what followed inevitable, and this weekend, the president, first lady Michelle Obama, and their teenage daughters, Malia and Sasha, helped mark the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. It was there in 1965 – on the Edmund Pettus Bridge – that state troopers violently attacked a peaceful civil rights march. It was all on camera, for the world to see, and that changed everything. Five months later Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – after Selma there was no way to oppose it. That march changed everything too.
Maybe it didn’t. What Lyndon Johnson signed into law could be overcome, as anyone could see on June 25, 2013:
The Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.
The court divided along ideological lines, and the two sides drew sharply different lessons from the history of the civil rights movement and the nation’s progress in rooting out racial discrimination in voting. At the core of the disagreement was whether racial minorities continued to face barriers to voting in states with a history of discrimination.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
The Supreme Court was saying that whatever happened in 1965 is ancient history now. We now live in a post-racial America. The Supreme Court said so when they struck down that key provision of the Voting Rights Act, an act which had been renewed again and again with no one at all complaining. The vote, to keep the whole act in place, had always almost been unanimous, in both the Senate and the House. Democrats thought it was fair. Republicans thought it was good politics to vote for the renewal of the whole act – it looks bad to side with racists, at least openly.
The underlying issue was, after all, pretty simple. States and municipalities with a history of making it almost impossible for minorities and the poor to vote – or those who supported minorities and the poor, like Democrats and the young – had to have any changes to their voting laws approved by the Department of Justice. They brought this on themselves – but by a narrow margin, and also arguing that all states should be treated equally, no matter what their history was, even a year ago, the Supreme Court suddenly held that there was now no need for those previously nasty folks to seek preapproval for any changes in how their future elections should be managed. We have a black president after all. That changed everything. The old days were over – so the burden of proof was reversed. Selected states and municipalities wouldn’t have to prove their latest rules would be fair to everyone. The feds would have to prove they weren’t – presumably long after this or that election.
Within hours of the ruling Texas instituted its new voter ID law, which will keep at least a half-million of the poor and minorities from ever casting a ballot. It’s hard to get those ID cards. North Carolina followed a week or two later with voter ID cards that were even harder to obtain, and reduced voting hours, and hardly any early voting any longer, and there will be far fewer polling places in selected areas, and they approved a hefty tax penalty on the parents of any college student who votes anywhere other than his or her parents’ home precinct – they would no longer be able to claim the kid as a dependent on the state tax form. That takes care of the pesky youth vote – few kids will take the bus home from college, on a Tuesday, to vote in their parents’ precinct – and Florida began to purge their voter rolls again. That’s blown up on them again and again, but they’re back at it now. If your name sounds funny you’ll be purged from the voter rolls, as a potential non-citizen, and it’ll be up to you, at your expense, to prove you really are a citizen, if you can. Hire a lawyer and schedule a court date. You’re on your own.
Fewer Hispanics will be voting in Florida now, and they’ve got the black vote covered too. If you have a name that’s similar to some black dude convicted of a felony, you’ll find your name on the list of ineligible voters too. You’ll have to prove you’re not that other person, which could be a long and tedious process, and you probably don’t have the resources for that. You won’t vote.
This has been happening in every state controlled by Republicans, as a coordinated effort, and it’s pretty sweet. Had they tried this stuff before, offering all the talk about assuring the integrity of the voting process, they would have been laughed out of the room. Even they knew that was bullshit – but now they can point to the new Supreme Court Ruling on the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They can argue that the highest court in the land said all of this was fine, unless ruled not fine, at some later date, after the damage is done, which the feds would have to prove, in a long court process. They’re fine with some later date. They’ll win a lot of elections now.
This hardly seems post-racial. It only seems inevitable. Somehow, now, it no longer looks bad to side with racists, even openly – permission has been granted, permission to let it all hang out. If others think you’re racist, well, now those others will have to prove it – conclusively.
Many were shocked by this, but John Roberts, writing in the majority opinion, said that if this seems wrong in any way, Congress can revise and amend the original act to make sure everyone gets a chance to vote. That’s not the Court’s business. The Supreme Court doesn’t legislate. Congress does, and he was sure Congress would get together, in a bipartisan fashion, and fix what might be a bit unfair these days. If Congress didn’t, well, that wasn’t his problem.
That settled matters, but at the time, Josh Green wasn’t so sure:
On its face, this looks like a big victory for Republicans. But is it really? I suspect it will turn out to be a poisoned chalice. Many of the GOP’s current problems stem from the fact that it is overly beholden to its white, Southern base at a time when the country is rapidly becoming more racially diverse. In order to expand its base of power beyond the House of Representatives, the GOP needs to expand its appeal to minority voters. As the ongoing battle over immigration reform demonstrates, that process is going poorly and looks like it will be very difficult.
The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act will make it easier for Republicans to hold and expand their power in those mainly Southern states. That will, in turn, make it easier for them to hold the House. It will also intensify the Southern captivity of the GOP, thereby making it harder for Republicans to broaden their appeal and win back the White House.
Ah, but one year after Green wrote that, the Republicans not only held the House, decisively, they won the Senate too. There will be no “fixes” to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 anytime soon, if ever, and that was an issue in Selma this weekend:
Echoing a speech given by President Obama a day earlier, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Sunday that access to the polls was “under siege” by a flurry of recent state laws, and by a 2013 United States Supreme Court decision that weakened the Voting Rights Act, the landmark legislation that was the great prize for the civil rights activists who marched here a half-century ago. …
“It has been clear in recent years that fair and free access to the franchise is still, in some areas, under siege,” said Mr. Holder, speaking at Brown Chapel AME Church. The church served as a staging area for demonstrators who were gassed and beaten by the police on March 7, 1965, on the day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. …
Mr. Obama led a march across the bridge on Saturday, after a speech in which he called the Voting Rights Act “the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence.” The law, he said, “stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.”
Congress, he said, should “pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year.”
That could be difficult, given the highly partisan tenor of the debate over voting rights.
Alice Ollstein at ThinkProgress shows how difficult this might be:
On his way to the commemoration ceremony, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said it’s been “powerful” to hear stories from Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who helped lead the Selma march 50 years ago and was severely beaten by police. But when ThinkProgress asked if he supports Lewis’ voting rights bill, he replied, “I haven’t looked at it. Is there a Senate version?”
A Senate version was introduced several weeks ago, and currently has zero Republican sponsors.
Portman, who has advocated for cuts to Ohio’s early voting period and voted against the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, added before walking away: “This day is about more than just tweaks to the Voting Rights Act. This is about ensuring equal justice and learning from the lessons of the past.”
This year’s congressional delegation also included Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) – a vocal supporter of voter ID laws in South Carolina – and Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), who has tried to pass laws to require proof of citizenship for voting, a policy found to disenfranchise eligible voters in other states.
While walking to the VIP section of the Selma anniversary event, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said of Lewis’ bill: “I haven’t studied it sufficiently to comment on it.” And while Lewis, President Obama and others emphasized Saturday how far the country still has to go to eradicate racism and voter suppression, Sessions told ThinkProgress: “I think we’ve had so much improved voting rights in Alabama that the Court was probably correct to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act.”
John Lewis, who had his skull fractured by the police on that bridge in 1965, who introduced his bill to make sure that Voting Right Act still means something, saw a turning point fifty years ago. Others saw just another march, but Democrats were having none of that:
“It is a sin that we have not in the U.S. Congress re-invigorated the Voting Rights Act and gotten it back to the President for a signature. That’s what we ought to be talking about in Selma today,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Vermont Senator and rumored presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I) added, “What happened on that bridge that day was a huge step forward for democracy in America. But what is happening right now – not just in the South but all over this country – are efforts by Republican governors and Republican legislatures to make it harder for African-Americans, for low-income people and for senior citizens to vote.”
And then there’s Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights:
“Commemoration requires legislation. Selma isn’t just a photo op, it’s a solemn remembrance of the blood, sweat, tears, and lives that went into securing voting rights for racial minorities in this country,” he said. “The Bloody Sunday march is not a parade, and it is hypocritical for members to attend the event and then do nothing to advance a VRA restoration.”
Of course there’s this:
Other lawmakers on the delegation said the most effective pressure won’t come from inside Congress, but from the grassroots. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) told ThinkProgress that just like 50 years ago, “It’s the young people and the peaceful protests that are going to force Congress to do the right thing.”
That’s an admission that Congress is full of jerks. The people will have to slap them upside the head – but that may not happen again. What happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 might be the kind of thing that only happens once, but the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne can dream:
At a minimum, Congress should honor Selma by restoring an effective Voting Rights Act, once a bipartisan cause. Why should Republicans walk away from their party’s most commendable traditions?
But let’s be more adventurous and make voting in federal elections an obligation of citizenship. “How,” Obama asked, “do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?” Yes, “compulsory voting” seems a nonstarter in the United States, as my political scientist friends Tom Mann, Norm Ornstein and I well know. The three of us have been arguing for this idea based on our experiences in Australia, a country for which we have great affection, where voters are required to go to the polls. The system works well, raising turnout especially among the less well-to-do and the less ideological. This creates a more moderate and more representative electorate. Crucially, such a law tells state and local governments that instead of creating barriers to voting, they should ease the way for citizens to fulfill their civic duty.
The party of Lincoln, the Republicans, with that commendable tradition, would never go for the Australian solution. Nothing should be compulsory. Freedom! And the less well-to-do and the less ideological don’t vote for Republicans anyway. Why would they want this sort of thing?
Martin Luther King saw this coming. His last book, published in 1967 after Selma and after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, asked a simple question. Where Do We Go From here: Chaos or Community?
Dionne sees the problem:
It is much better than the question President Obama rightly scorned on Saturday as he honored the 50th Anniversary of Selma’s Bloody Sunday in one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency. To ask if our current struggles, in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, suggest that, “with respect to race, little has changed in this country” would sound absurd to those who lived through the oppression of the past.
Neither the demonstrators nor the police who pummeled them as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 could have imagined that in 2015, an African American president would be leading the ceremonies memorializing the moment. They would have been just as astonished that the states of the Old Confederacy now send one African American to the Senate and 19 to the House, including John Lewis, whose beating on the bridge marked the beginning of his career as a national treasure.
But politics rarely produces final victories, and even the victories that do endure are often partial. Thus did Obama insist that a true love of country entails a belief “that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation.”
Obama’s career-making speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, which I happened to be in the hall to witness, was unforgettable political theater, the obvious arrival of a star, but its text is not, in fact, that impressive on re-reading. It assured Americans that they could easily move past Red/Blue tribal divisions. Isn’t it pretty to think so.
Obama’s speech on race relations in America, in Philadelphia seven years ago, saved his campaign and thus was again a history-changing performance. Before that speech, it seemed possible that he would be forced from the race by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright “God damn America!” furor. But I don’t think its actual discussion of race relations will be studied for enlightenment in years to come.
Obama’s speech today differs from those of most other national figures, most of the time, in stating with concise complexity what is indeed exceptional about this American experiment.
James Fallows says this one got to the core, because it was about how our tribal identities start with being American, with Obama saying this:
And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? …
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
This is who we are:
The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny….
It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. That’s America.
That’s what makes us unique.
Add to that this passage:
We were born of change. We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. …
Look at our history. We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters. That’s our spirit. That’s who we are.
We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some. And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth. That is our character.
We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free – Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan. We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life. That’s how we came to be.
We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South. We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.
We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent. And we’re the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.
We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.
We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.
We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.
This list in this speech is different from what most politicians would offer – you’ll know that the GOP is serious about competing for non-white votes and thus for the presidency when you can imagine one of its candidates presenting a similar list – and it is one that matches my sense of what I love about my country. That is who we are. That is our character. That is how we came to be.
Obama is obviously not the first person to formulate this thought. The continual re-making of America was a central theme for Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, and also Ralph Waldo Emerson… But the appeal to American exceptionalism via embracing our capacity for renewal, self-criticism, and inclusiveness is one I haven’t heard this clearly from a public figure in many years.
And there’s this:
That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.
We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.
The political tribalism of this moment means that Democrats are mostly welcoming today’s speech, and Republicans and Fox News mostly condemning it. But these days Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted respectfully even at right-wing gatherings. When the political passions of our time have passed, people of all parties will quote this speech as expressing an essence of our American creed.
That would also make the events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 a turning point – we rediscovered who we are – unless that 2013 Supreme Court decision, gutting that 1965 Voting Rights Act, was the real turning point, when we rediscovered who we really are. Maybe we’re not very nice people – but then everything is a turning point. One thing leads to another.