Supreme Court to Consider the South’s Legacy On Voting Rights

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The Big Picture

By Glynn Wilson


How can one be fair and balanced in the face of blatant, retrograde racism?

The Washington Post is just now figuring out that at the top of the steps of Alabama’s old Capitol, there’s a six-pointed bronze star marking the spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy. The Washington Post, you see, was not much of a newspaper in the early 1960s. It was the New York Times, CBS News and UPI that covered the war for Civil Rights in Alabama in those days.

The Birmingham News and other Alabama newspapers did their level best to ignore the sit-ins and other demonstrations that led to voting rights for African-Americans in the 1960s. The News never ran pictures of Bull Conner’s fire hoses and police dogs aimed at demonstrators.

So it must have seemed like a real adventure for Post staff writer Robert Barns to visit Montgomery recently to write about civil rights in the era of Attorney General Luther Strange and Shelby County’s challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Barnes, whose bio on the paper’s Website says he has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987, having joined the paper to cover Maryland politics, and has served in various editing positions since. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006. In what is supposed to be a funny way to show a guy with no degrees or experience can be a newspaper reporter, his bio says, “he gave up law school plans for a life in newspapers after taking a journalism class in college.”

A journalism class. Wow.

So he makes the trip to Alabama this year, and for the first time in 2013, he goes to the foot of the steps of the Alabama Capitol and finds the historical marker dedicated to black citizens “who in the 1960s dared to register to vote,” yes, “a constitutional right impeded by Gov. George Wallace,” where they were met with “with state-sponsored terrorism.”

And somewhere beyond those two frank reminders of the past is modern-day Alabama, he reports, “which may or may not be just like the rest of America.”


Yes, that is a question the United States Supreme Court may consider this week, whether the guarantee of equality under the law in Alabama and the rest of the South is the same as in the rest of the nation. For the sixth time since 1965, the Supreme Court will get to consider whether Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates that federal authorities get to pre-approve any changes in voting laws in jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination.

“The section is the hammer in what supporters say is the most effective civil rights legislation Congress has ever passed,” Barnes writes. “They draw a straight line between the law and the election of the nation’s first African American president.”

What he doesn’t report is it’s that very thing that has opponents all fired up to overturn the law. A black president is repugnant to these people, and they think they can use the courts to make sure that never happens again. Of course you won’t find that out from today’s New York Times, which has ceded doing these kinds of stories to the Post and us Web publishers. They don’t have the budget anymore to send their smart little Ivy League-educated reporters down here to save our asses.

Barnes does report, for the sake of balance, that those seeking to overturn the law say it “is now hopelessly outdated.”

But of course he only spent a day or two in Alabama. So when he reads in the blatantly racist lawsuit seeking to overturn the law that “The violence, intimidation, and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains,” he takes them at their word.

He also takes the word of Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who is not only white, he is a former lobbyist for the oil giant BP. In taking up the Shelby County case and promoting it to the nation’s highest court, Strange tries to make the case that it “goes too far.”

“It is time for Alabama and the other covered jurisdictions to resume their roles as equal and sovereign parts of these United States,” Strange writes in the state’s brief.


Then Barnes goes on to quote Strange, who must indeed be quite strange, because he actually says to a Washington Post reporter in an interview: “I’ve never tried to run away from the civil rights history of the state. Alabama was the epicenter of it — Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham. There’s no use trying to deny it. I choose to focus on the progress we’ve made, and I like to tell that story.”

No shit? When did Luther Strange ever tell that story, ever, to anyone but a naive Washington Post reporter on his first trip to Montgomery?

Are newspapers in the business these days of publishing fiction?

So the number of black legislators is “roughly proportional” to the state’s African American population? They all represent majority black districts, gerrymandered in that way by the Republicans to keep some districts mostly conservative and white, especially in places like Mountain Brook, where I’m told there are more Rush Limbaugh listeners than any other rich, educated district in the country. Why is a mystery to me.

Way down in the story, Barnes gets around to quoting state Representative John Knight, who is named on a brief urging the court to retain Section 5, arguing that “the law’s work is not finished.”

“There are so many different ways to discourage minorities from voting, and they’ve all been tried here in Alabama,” Knight said. “There’s no question that had it not been for Section 5, had it not been for a Justice Department that was going to make sure the state was going to comply with the Voting Rights Act, we wouldn’t have the number of black officials we have, we wouldn’t have the number of black people voting we have.”

Yet all is not right with the world.

“When you look at the Alabama Supreme Court, there are no blacks there. When you look at the governor’s Cabinet, very few blacks in the Cabinet,” Knight says. “We have an economic development department in the state of Alabama that’s lily-white.”

Knight is also named on a federal lawsuit challenging a redistricting plan adopted by the Republican-controlled legislature, which was openly designed to pack minorities into certain districts to reduce their influence in others. The Republicans don’t even hide their intent. State Senator Scott Beason was recently quoted in the State House saying the plan was to get rid of all white Democrats and turn the Democratic Party into an all black party.

But I guess Barnes was not around to hear that, so let’s be fair to the racists and print their point of view, even if it is an out and out lie.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama argued Friday for keeping a key provision of federal voting rights law in place, saying it will become harder to help people who believe their rights at the polls have been violated if the Supreme Court decides to strike down that part of the law.

In a radio interview, Obama said removing the oversight requirement would make it a lot harder to give relief to voters who feel aggrieved. If that were to happen, he said, such voters would have to wait until potential obstacles have been put in place before they could then sue in an attempt to have them overturned.

“So generally speaking, you’d see less protection before an election with respect to voting rights,” Obama said. “People could keep on coming up with new schemes each election. Even if they were ultimately ruled to violate the Voting Rights Act, it would be hard for us to catch those things up front to make sure that elections are done in an equitable way.”

In his State of the Union address, Obama said he would create a commission to recommend ways to help improve the voting experience in response widespread complaints about long waits, requirements to show photo ID before voting and shortened periods for early voting.

“It’s important that we work together to make sure everybody gets a chance to vote and we clear away a lot of this nonsense and, if we have some national guidelines and rules working with states, counties to make sure that people aren’t waiting in line for six, seven hours, that there aren’t new tricks that discourage people from voting, if we’ve got those in place then obviously it’s not as good as good as if we keep Section 5 of the Voting Rights (Act) in place, which I think we should,” Obama said. “But I think it’s still possible, obviously, for us to make sure that everybody’s able to exercise their rights.”

The Supreme Court considered the issue of overturning Section 5 three years ago but sidestepped what Chief Justice John Roberts at the time called “a difficult constitutional question.”

The federal requirement for advance approval, or preclearance, was adopted to give federal officials a potent tool to defeat persistent efforts to keep blacks from voting. The provision has been a success, according to legal experts, and Congress periodically has renewed it over the years, most recently in 2006, when a Republican-led Congress overwhelmingly approved and President George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension.

The requirement currently applies to Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan and New Hampshire. Coverage has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives and Hispanics.

But hey. All’s fair in love, war and politics, right? So let’s let the racists have their day in court and overturn it. After all, people get what they deserve. Isn’t that god’s law?

I’m shocked, shocked I tell you that Barnes didn’t get an audience with Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and make the case that we should all go back to living under the Old Testament rule of “an eye for an eye.”

That’s what the founders intended, right?

What I’m wondering is, what will the guards at the State House metal detectors do when the Republican legislature passes an open carry gun law in this state? Will we all have to check our holsters at the door like an old saloon out west somewhere a hundred years ago?

I swear living back in Alabama these past few years reminds me of being in an old Western movie, one where the script was written by some gay New York writer who never visited the West, shot a gun or drank whiskey.

Will we ever get tired of living in a fairy tale?

Apparently not if the newspapers survive and have their way.

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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