The Voting Rights Act’s enduring legacy

The Observer editorial board

Demonstrators marched in Winston-Salem to oppose a 2013 state election reform law.
Demonstrators marched in Winston-Salem to oppose a 2013 state election reform law. AP

As he signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson called it “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.”

It marked the end of poll taxes, literacy tests and the other ugly barricades white segregationists erected to keep generations of African Americans away from voting booths and political power.

Passed just months after the infamous police beating of protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the law still stands as one of America’s proudest moments.

But a funny thing happened on the way to post-racial nirvana at the polls.

Today, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the law’s signing, minority voting rights – and the question of using federal force to ensure them – remain the subject of bitter legal and political battles.

North Carolina finds itself at the epicenter of the modern debate, thanks to the harshly restrictive voting law the GOP-led legislature passed in 2013. It rolled back early voting, same-day registration and other measures that helped boost black turnout by 65 percent between 2000 and 2012.

Testimony ended last week in the federal lawsuit the NAACP and other groups have filed, challenging that law as a violation of the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution. The odds don’t appear to be in the NAACP’s favor, given that the Supreme Court opened the door to new restrictions by killing the law’s requirement that states and counties identified as past bad actors must “pre-clear” voting changes with federal authorities. Congress must update the rule to reflect today’s racial realities, the court said, not those of 1965.

That seems too tall of an order for a Congress that can’t even fix our crumbling roads. So we go to court, where the N.C. voting rights case raises again the central question of modern U.S. race relations: Have we done enough to atone for the sins of slavery and segregation?

The headlines of the day suggest not.

An entirely new civil rights movement, #BlackLivesMatter, has sprung up around the troubling dynamic of police shooting unarmed blacks. And a new Gallup poll shows that satisfaction with the way blacks are treated has reached a new low point. The poll included the views not only of blacks, but of whites and Hispanics as well.

Does North Carolina’s new voting law violate the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act? We’ll have to await U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder’s ruling to find out.

Are we a colorblind nation no longer in need of vigilance to guard against subtler new methods of infringing minority voting rights?

We don’t need a judge to tell us how to answer that one.

In our hearts, we already know.