The Long Assault on Our Voting Rights
Acclaimed historian Gary May puts the 2013 Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act into historical perspective.
“You know, sometimes, we see this story as one of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson — they get together and we have the Voting Rights Act. But, of course, it’s a much larger story,” May tells Bill. “It’s a perfect example of the value of collective change to bring about progress in this country, people getting together and being committed and willing to risk their very lives to bring something when the country desperately needs it.”
A specialist in American political, diplomatic and social history, May’s latest book is Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy.
Full transcript below the fold or at Bill Moyers' website.
BILL MOYERS: Bless you, Marty. But do we have to take our cue from Brazil? We’ve seen collective action work before to make this a better country. Some of us have even been around long enough to remember the fight for voting rights 50 years ago. We remember the protests by courageous men and women who put their lives on the line, and the political skills of President Lyndon Johnson and the Congress that passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I worked for LBJ and I was there when not long after peaceful protesters in Selma, Alabama, had been ruthlessly beaten by white thugs in official uniforms. The President went before a joint session of Congress and turned the anthem of the civil rights movement into a hymn of freedom for all:
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.
BILL MOYERS: The Voting Rights Act passed the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 77 to 19. Yes, 77 to 19. But even so, many conservatives opposed it then, and have tried ever since to nullify it. Late last month, they succeeded. The Supreme Court’s five conservative justices declared the key provision of the Act outdated. Nine states with a pattern of denying minorities the right to vote, most of them former members of the Confederacy, no longer have to get federal approval to change their voting procedures in any way. Several of those states immediately set out to implement restrictive new voting laws that before the ruling would have been found discriminatory.
By coincidence, the very weekend before the Supreme Court’s decision disemboweled that historic legislation, I had finished reading a masterful new account of the events leading up to its passage. This is it: “Bending Toward Justice; The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy.” You will not find in one volume a more compelling story of the heroic men and women who struggled for the right to vote, or a more cinematic rendering of the political battle to enact the law, or a more succinct telling of the long campaign to subvert it. The author is with me now. GARY MAY is a professor of history at the University of Delaware and winner of the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians. Welcome.
GARY MAY: Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: What were you thinking as the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act?
GARY MAY: I thought first of the people you mentioned, the people who have been forgotten by history who for decades had been risking everything, their homes, their jobs, and their lives and
I thought, "Here are these five men, men of privilege, men who'd served as US attorneys judges-- Thomas, an administrator. How could they possibly understand the world of those men and women who fought and died for the Voting Rights Act. They don't seem to understand it at all. They think it's all past.
BILL MOYERS: By coincidence I had just recently seen C.T. Vivian, he was one of Martin Luther King's top aides leading those demonstrators trying to vote in Selma--
GARY MAY: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: --when the infamous Sheriff Jim Clark wouldn't let them pass. Here is the scene.
C.T. VIVIAN: You are breaking the injunction by not allowing these people to come inside this courthouse and wait—
This courthouse does not belong to Sheriff Clark. This courthouse belongs to the people of Dallas County. And these are the people of Dallas County. And they have come to register. And you know this within your own heart, Sheriff Clark. You are not as evil a man as you act. You know in your heart what is right.
What you're really trying to do is intimidate these people by making them stand in the rain, keep them from registering to vote. And this, this is the kind of violation of the Constitution, the violation of the court order, the violation of decent citizenship.
You can turn your back on me, but you cannot turn your back upon the idea of justice. You can turn your back now, and you can keep the club in your hand. But you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote because as citizens of these United States, we have the right to do it.
SHERIFF JIM CLARK: I'm looking down the line and seeing all the people who have been in jail for felonies. That's what I'm looking at—
C.T. VIVIAN: Precisely right. And if they, and if they're not to vote, you'll be able to find that out. But you're not until they're -- until they're on the register. And many of those have the felony action because Sheriff Clark made them a felony action, not because they were rightfully […] You don't have to beat us.
SHERIFF JIM CLARK: So get out of here.
C.T. VIVIAN: You don't have to beat us. Arrest us.
GARY MAY: That was an extraordinarily important moment. A few nights later, Reverend Vivian was asked to preach at a church in Marion, Alabama, not too far from Selma. And he did that. And the parishioners were going to march on the jail afterwards where one of their colleagues had been unfairly imprisoned.
Reverend Vivian left. He didn't join that march. And what happened was that the parishioners came outside. The demonstrators came outside to face almost a mob of Alabama police, local police. Jim Clark was there as well.
And in the melee that followed, a young civil rights leader named Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by an Alabama state trooper while he was trying to protect his mother and grandfather from a beating. And it's thought that Clark and the others were there to get Vivian for that encounter that they had.
And of course, the Marion people were so distraught over Jimmie Lee Jackson's death that one of them said, "Let's take his coffin and to George Wallace in Montgomery and put it on the capitol steps." And from that came the idea of this march from Selma to Montgomery. And so there was a debate in King's circle. Should they go forward they might encounter again what had been encountered in Marion. And King's advisors were divided. Some said, "Yes, let's go forward." King himself was uncertain.
BILL MOYERS: As you know and write about, President Johnson didn't want that march to happen either. Now, of course, he changed his mind later. And when Lyndon Johnson changed his mind, he came out the cross of a charging bear and a crafty fox. But at the moment, he was doing what he could to prevent that march from happening.
GARY MAY: Uh-huh. Which is another irony, isn't it? Because here is the event that almost never took place. And the event that Lyndon Johnson wanted stopped, the event that Martin Luther King initially had opposed. And, of course, it turns everything around.
BILL MOYERS: And as you know, it came to be called “Bloody Sunday.”
GARY MAY: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: Here is that scene.
MALE POLICEMAN: It would be detrimental to your safety to continue this march. I will say it again. You are to disperse. You are ordered to disperse. Go home or go to your church. This march will not continue. Advance towards the groups. See that they disperse.
GARY MAY: It was so terrible. One person, we heard a person calling for a doctor. Someone called for an ambulance to Sheriff Clark. And Sheriff Clark replied, "Let the buzzards eat them." And what was so extraordinary was that it was captured on film. And that proved to be absolutely critical. Journalists, print journalists and photographers were there. They got their cameraman. They got the film back to New York very quickly. And ABC was the first to break the news by interrupting the movie of the week, which again, in an amazing coincidence was Judgment at Nuremburg, the 1961 film about the Nazi war trials.
And people were stunned. They just watched the footage. There was no narration. And they--was this America? I mean, they couldn't believe it. They dropped everything to join King's campaign. Others besieged Lyndon Johnson in the White House, sat in, a group of them in the White House.
BILL MOYERS: What do these unanticipated, unexpected, unintended consequences of the convergence of such forces, what do they tell you about history, how it gets made?
GARY MAY: That it's primarily an accident. You know, sometimes, we see this story as one of Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson. They get together and we have the Voting Rights Act. But, of course, it's a much larger story. And it's a perfect example of the value of collective change to bring about progress in this country, people getting together and being committed and willing to risk their very lives to bring something when the country desperately needs it.
BILL MOYERS: But it's clear to me that if there hadn't been this steady witness and martyrdom of these young men and women in the South, and a progressive President, the result wouldn't have been the same. If you'd not had the pressure from below and if you'd had a conservative President, history wouldn't have come the way it has come to us.
GARY MAY: Yes. And once Johnson decided that bill was going to go to the Congress that he was going to give that great address. He felt liberated.
BILL MOYERS: I was standing off to the right below the president on the floor of the House. And I could look right into the eyes of senators and representatives as clearly as I can look and as closely as I can look into your eyes. I mean, they have never heard a President of the United States say that anywhere. And to say it on the dais on the rostrum there in the House Chamber before the assembled Congress, I mean, at first they could not believe what they had heard.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Every device of which human ingenuity is capable, has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name, or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application, he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of state law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write. For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin […] No law that we now have on the books and I have helped to put three of them there, can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.
BILL MOYERS: That speech was written by my colleague, gifted young man – 33 at the time, I believe –Richard Goodwin. Goodwin and Johnson created a magnificent moment then.
GARY MAY: And as almost an accident also the first draft of that speech had gone to another Johnson aide. And Johnson said, you gave it to a public relations guy? I wanted Goodwin to do this. I wanted a Jew to write this speech. Someone who had experienced anti-Semitism. And while Goodwin was working on the speech, Johnson telephoned him and said, "You remember the story about how I was a teacher at that Mexican American school?"
And of course Goodwin had heard it a thousand times. And Johnson's like, "I want that in the speech."
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn't speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes […] I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.
BILL MOYERS: You say that the Voting Rights Act never would have existed without the help of two generations of courageous Republican legislators. I agree with that because I worked with many of them when I was a young man on working on policy for President Johnson. One of them was Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the wizard of ooze as you remind us.
GARY MAY: They had a very interesting relationship. You know, very often, Dirksen would attack the President on the floor of the Senate in the morning. And in the afternoon, they'd be drinking bourbon and branch water together.
The Voting Rights Act was literally written in Everett Dirksen's office with the Attorney General, the acting Attorney General, Katzenbach there. And some called the Bill Dirksenbach.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I remember that.
GARY MAY: And Johnson, of course, was quite content to give the credit for some of this to Everett Dirksen because he feared that the Southerners might mount a filibuster as they had with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a long filibuster. And in order to get the votes to invoke cloture, which would stop the filibuster, he needed Republican votes.
BILL MOYERS: The President sent me in 1964 to see to see Dirksen. He sent a lot of people up to see Dirksen. And I was 30 years old. And he was 68--67, 68. We talked about cloture very briefly. And then I said, "Thank you." And I got up to leave. And I got to the door.
And he said in that deep voice of his, "Mr. Moyers, what about that great American I recommended to the President who belongs by destiny on the Interstate Commerce Commission?" I said "I didn't know you'd done that." He said, "You just check it out. He's a great American." And he got on the Interstate Commerce Commission. I have to tell you that. I mean, that's the way they both understood politics.
GARY MAY: Yes. Unfortunately, we don't have that today.
BILL MOYERS: So Justice Roberts, when he write- his opinion on the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act says, "We don't need it anymore." He said, "The country has changed. This is the age of Obama. We've got our first black President." And Justice Roberts even mentioned Bloody Sunday in Selma and the murder of those three young people: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
And Roberts wrote, "Today, both of those towns,” Selma and Philadelphia, Mississippi, “are governed by African American mayors. Problems remain in those states," the justice said, "but there is no denying that due to the Voting Rights Act, our nation has made great strides." We have made great strides. What's your reaction?
GARY MAY: We certainly have made great strides. But all we have to do is look at the voter suppression movement that arose, from many of the covered states incidentally, in 2011 and—
BILL MOYERS: States—
GARY MAY: --2012.
BILL MOYERS: --states covered by the Voting Rights Act?
GARY MAY: Correct. Voter IDs that are very difficult for many African Americans, and whites as well, who are elderly and don’t have those documents. It costs money to acquire these necessary documents. It’s really a kind of poll tax now. Voter IDs make it more difficult for people to vote. Preventing voting on Sunday, which was so important to the African American community. They'd go to church. They'd go to the polls. It's taking your soul to the polls. And all of those indicate a continuing need for the Voting Rights Act.
BILL MOYERS: What did the Supreme Court decision actually do?
GARY MAY: By striking down section four, which contains the formula that allows section five to cover certain states in the South and actually nine states – and parts of six other states, requiring them, before changing any voting practice, to submit those changes to a federal court in Washington, DC or the Justice Department to receive what is called pre-clearance.
BILL MOYERS: And the reason the Voting Rights Act singled out those states is because for decades, the voting rights of black people have been denied by one technique after another, as President Johnson said in his speech.
And within hours of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Attorney General of Texas announced that they were going to resurrect their Voting ID bill which had been disallowed last year. And there is an outfit Louis Menand mentions in the “New Yorker” magazine. There is a white group in Beaumont, Texas, just waiting for this Supreme Court decision because they want to overthrow the black majority that runs the school board. So you’re saying, I think you’re saying, a lot of mischief can be done now that would have been disqualified by the voting rights provision.
GARY MAY: Absolutely. You know, Chief Justice Warren, when the court first ruled on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act in 1966, said that the bill had been designed to eliminate the most egregious of difficulties. But it was also written to cover subtle devices. And here, I think, is an example of subtle and quite harmful devices. We’re still very polarized racially. Sometimes, it’s wrong just to focus on the fact that we have so many African Americans in office including a President. In the oral arguments Chief Justice Roberts said, you know, well, you’re saying that Alabama is more prejudiced than Massachusetts. And the evidence indicates that yes – it still is.
BILL MOYERS: The majority on the court struck down the provision that requires the states to get federal approval before making changes. Is there a historical record to suggest that this decision in no small part was motivated by a political goal?
GARY MAY: It’s hard to say. To be fair, should we accept that maybe those five justices have their own set of political principles and we just don’t agree with them? You know, as a historian you want to be fair. But it seems to me that they are on the wrong side of history, that there was so much evidence to indicate continuing difficulties that to simply, blanketly say, "We need the Voting Rights Act anymore.
You know, we're in a post-racial society now. We have a black President." It is so out of touch with what is happening in the country.
BILL MOYERS: Pardon me for suggesting that John Roberts sometimes seems less concerned with the law and the Constitution than with a political agenda. Is that unfair?
GARY MAY: No, it’s not unfair. In fact, when he was a young member of the civil rights division under Ronald Reagan he was at that point working very hard when the Voting Rights Act came up for reauthorization in 1982 to gut it at that point. So in many ways the court’s recent decision is the fulfillment of Judge Roberts’ dream.
BILL MOYERS: In fact, there’s a memo Roberts wrote back then in which he said the Voting Rights Act would quote, "Provide a basis for the most intrusive interference imaginable by federal courts into state and local processes." In other words, "Uncle Sam, you're meddling too much. Let's get your hands off of state processes." It’s certainly consistent with Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of you know, “Government is not the solution. It’s the problem.” So if we just remove government from regulating corporations and banks and everything will be fine. So that was the civil rights version of Reaganism. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, quote, "Hubris,” pride, “is a fit word for today's demolition of the Voting Rights Act." Was it hubris?
GARY MAY: It's politics. And I think it's also ideological hubris. Because if you go back to the critical documents that supposedly protect the right to vote, you know, the 15th amendment passed in 1870, declares that people could not be prohibited from voting because of race, color, and condition of previous servitude and added the Congress shall enforce this amendment with appropriate legislation. The first of the line 1965 Voting Rights Act says, this is a bill to enforce the 15th amendment. So this was a power given to the Congress, not to the courts.
BILL MOYERS: The Roberts Court in effect said to Congress, you can rewrite these standards, you can rewrite the Voting Rights Act. And it’s your obligation to do so. Any chance that this Congress would do that?
GARY MAY: It seems almost impossible because the Republican party has become the party of the South. And in a strange way, has taken on the appearance of the old white southern segregationist Democrats.
BILL MOYERS: Now you have analysts, and others saying the court's recent decision is going to actually help the Democrats in the voting booth and that it's actually going to be a spur to the energies of the Democratic party in the coming elections. Do you see any possibility of that?
GARY MAY: I don't know because I remember-- what was the decisive moment that turned this whole thing around, that led to the creation of the Voting Rights Act? It was the tragedy of Bloody Sunday. I am concerned about the future. I think the court's decision does give a green light to all sorts of things, not simply the mischievous devices to suppress the vote. But imagine the Supreme Court of the United States giving its endorsement of-- creating difficulties for voting. I mean, it's extraordinary. And what comes of that? I don't know.
BILL MOYERS: You've written a book that could change this country again, if every citizen read it. Congratulations.
GARY MAY: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: On “Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy.” And thank you, GARY MAY, for being with me.
GARY MAY: Thank you so much.
BILL MOYERS: At our website, BillMoyers.com, we’ve brought together legal scholars and journalists to ask them what the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision means for democracy.
And you can view online the new documentary on the economic struggle of “Two American Families,” produced for the PBS series “Frontline.”
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.