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48 YEARS OF THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT
The voting law that became a major turning point in black Americans’ struggle for equal rights and political power is now outdated, the Supreme Court says. Whether that’s a marker of racial progress or proof of backsliding will be hotly debated. As the issue moves to Congress, a look at the law’s history:
The right to vote, for American men at least, was supposed to be guaranteed when the 15th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War.
The amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Freed slaves began voting and even winning office, but former Confederate states came up with tactics to evade the 15th Amendment.
These literacy tests, poll taxes and other discriminatory laws, as well as intimidation and violence, continued for decades. In 1940, only 3 percent of eligible blacks in the South were registered to vote, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Nearly a century after the amendment was ratified in 1870, the civil rights movement forced the nation to acknowledge the injustice.
March from Selma
Activists who tried to help blacks register in the South in the 1960s were met with violence. The fatal shooting of a demonstrator by a law officer in Alabama inspired the idea of a march to the state capital on March 7, 1965.
Hundreds of marchers on their way to Mont-gomery were clubbed and tear-gassed by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma.
Protesters across the country rallied in support of the marchers. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. flew to Selma to lead demonstrations. And President Lyndon Johnson seized the momentum to propel the Voting Rights Act through Congress.
Voting Rights Act
The law outlawed racial discrimination against voters in local, state and federal elections.
Some entire states, as well as counties in other states, were subjected to special federal enforcement, based on a formula used to weigh their record on voting rights. They had to get approval in advance before they could make even minor changes to voting laws, such as moving polling places.
The enforcement provisions were originally seen as emergency measures that might be allowed to expire in 1970 if no longer needed.
But lawmakers extended the provisions in 1970, 1975 and 1982. In 2006, Congress voted overwhelmingly to keep them another 25 years.
Local civil rights leaders said Thursday that the U.S. Supreme Court acted prematurely by overturning part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and they called on Congress to keep the law intact.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said a section of the Voting Rights Act that requires some states to get federal approval before changing voting laws is unconstitutional and outdated.
Standing on the steps of Chattanooga City Hall on Thursday, longtime civil rights leader and NAACP President James Mapp and other leaders said it's up to Congress to protect minority voters now.
"Congress can overturn the Supreme Court decision like this," Mapp said, snapping his fingers. "All they have to do is vote to keep it."
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, both Tennessee Republicans, "have a great role to play," said Mapp. "All they have to do is support the retention of Section 4."
Corker was traveling and could not respond, according to his office.
Fleischmann stated in an e-mail response: "The Voters Rights Act rightfully ensured and protected the right to vote for people across our great nation. However, the Supreme Court held that the preclearance requirements were based on outdated voter data. I remain committed to election integrity and will thoughtfully consider any legislation that may come before the House."
Chattanooga Councilman Yusuf Hakeem said the ruling opens the door to re-establish Jim Crow-type laws. But today changes in the laws could affect everyone.
"If you think about the long lines that we have when we try to vote, think about shortening the days that people have an opportunity to vote," he said.
According to a New York Times article published this week, the decision to overturn Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act will have immediate consequences.
Texas stated that it will implement a voter identification law that had initially been blocked and that redistricting maps there no longer would need approval.
All or parts of 15 mostly Southern states deemed to have a history of voter disenfranchisement were required by the 1965 Voting Rights Act to get federal approval before changing election laws. The act allowed for states to be added to or taken from the list based on proof of discriminatory behavior.
The Supreme Court ruling said states named in the act no longer practice the discriminatory methods of the past. States still can be required to get preclearance for voting law changes if discriminatory actions are proved in court.
Several civil rights leaders said the Supreme Court's action significantly weakened a law that made it possible for blacks to vote. They said discrimination now appears in redistricting plans and voter identification requirements.
"We want Section 4 to be retained in the Voting Rights Act," said Mapp. "Tennessee doesn't have to worry if it's not in violation."
Tennessee actually was not among the nine states named in the act, although Georgia and Alabama were.
"Too many have sacrificed their time, resources, and in some cases, their lives to secure the right to vote for us to not continue this fight," said Mapp, whose house was bombed in 1971 as a result of his fight for equality. "We call upon other organizations who support voter equality to join in this nationwide effort."
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 423-757-6431.
Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...
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