While Congress Works to the Restore the Power of the Voting Rights Act, Local Community Groups Are not Waiting to Act – And They Never Have
There was a collective gasp inside the Supreme Court, when Justice Anthony Scalia endeavored to explain why he believed multiple sessions of Congress overwhelmingly voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Just moments later, the Supreme Court voted in favor of a constitutional challenge to the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was this moment, February 27, 2013 when Scalia espoused a deleterious ideology. An ethos, that lead this Justice to believe and actually say that the historic voting rights bill – a law which has aptly been heralded and “christened” as the most the successful piece of legislation the US Congress has ever passed –was merely the result of what he self-righteously labeled the “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
Justice Scalia pontificated out loud, seemingly extemporaneously, giving the audience an insight into how he would ultimately cast this decision.
“And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it,” said Justice Scalia, referring to the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“And the House is pretty much the same. Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”
The History of Voting Rights in United States is an epic story – riddled with endless tales of strenuous struggles by marginalized heroes who fought tooth and nail to claim and then reclaim their constitutional rights to vote. History instructs us that over the centuries, slaves, women, the poor, the landless and African Americans have gone to extreme lengths just to exercise and then protect their enfranchisement, forcing the political elites to rethink who deserved enfranchisement. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright violence are just a few components of the arsenal utilized to keep blacks from the voting booths.
Opponents of voting rights protections have always held a veiled racist view that protecting the voting rights of minorities was the consequence of a racial entitlement sentiment, some sort of unearned gift for being born black. For American leadership, their perspectives on the rights of minorities have evolved, devolved, and evolved again, acting and reacting to the forces of community groups creating new strategies and advocating methods to secure and protect constitutional rights.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was itself a direct result of the historic March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963. On a hot August day, hundreds of thousands of people from hundreds of local, small, civic, labor, and religious organizations made their final plea for human rights, and the March forged the passages of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The latter protected the enfranchisement of the African American Community until the Supreme Court struck down Sections 4 & 5, provisions that anchored the law.
Similarly, this summer marked the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, a movement to open the polls to blacks in Mississippi and combat fierce white supremacy in Mississippi. As Freedom Summer ignited, two young white participants, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and one African-American organizer, James Chaney, disappeared. The three young boys were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan – a terroristic tragedy that successfully horrified the members of Student Nonviolent Coordinated Committee (SNCC) but failed to dampen the resolve of the organizers who pressed forward, expanding the participation of women and minorities in the Democratic Party.
To those who think that with a stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court settled this matter permanently, they may not be too familiar with plight of minority community groups, who have treaded these waters in years past. For these groups, voting rights, or any rights for that matter come at high cost to the stakeholders, whether that is time, money, or even lives. These groups intuitively understand that the fight for freedom as they define it comes with great successes, embarrassing failures, and unplanned setbacks, like the one handed to them by the Supreme Court in Shelby V. Holder.
Today’s Community Organizations Carry the Torch. Southern Echo (SE) is one such organization. Southern Echo is a leadership development, education and training organization working to develop effective accountable grassroots leadership in the African-American communities in rural Mississippi. Southern Echo works with its partners in the Mississippi Delta Catalyst Roundtable, a partnership of ten black-based community organizations working in the Delta with parents, students, educators and public officials to create a quality public education accessible to all children. Southern Echo has been on the forefront on black community causes and has led the fight in utilizing grassroots training methods to combat voter disenfranchisement and promote voter education and empowerment.
The cornerstone of our so-called Democracy, the ability to exercise the right to vote has always been the priority of community organizations who have taken up the mantle. Millions shed blood, thousands lost their lives, and the Civil Rights Movement saw iconic figures murdered for the cause of equality, of which a vital pillar was the right vote. The Voting Rights Act stands as one of the movement’s crowning achievements and there are few today who don’t call the Voting Rights Act and great legislative feat. Yet when Justice Scalia delivered his epitaph on behalf of a branch of government not charged with legislating, and struck down laws which have been reauthorized by numerous presidents countless Members of Congress over last 10 decades, what did the black community do?
They began to work harder.