By Wiha Powell
In the 1860s, thanks to Congress, former slaves became citizens of the United States, which allowed them to have due process rights, equal protection, and a federally protected right to vote. Under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified on February 3, 1870, the U.S. government is prohibited from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. However, blacks were not allowed to vote until efforts were made some 94 years later by the 1964 campaign called Mississippi Freedom Summer. In this campaign, Mississippi civil rights workers like James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner risked their lives registering black voters. They ultimately gave their lives for such a right.
One year later, on Sunday March 7, 1965, which became known as Bloody Sunday, 600 nonviolent protesters set out to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with a call for voting rights for Blacks. These peaceful protesters didn’t even leave Selma before they were met and brutally beaten by police officers.
On March 15, President Lyndon Johnson convened a joint session of Congress to address the voting crisis and to demand a very specific response to the issue of every American citizen having an equal right to vote regardless race or color. This resulted in the proposal and the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Act authorized voting rights for black people and banned any test or hurdle that hindered black people from voting. Under
Section 5, it also places extra guards in certain states (mostly Southern states) that historically did not uphold integration-related, forcing them to do so. Special scrutiny was put in place for these problem states. These states were no longer allowed to change voting ID requirements, close polling places, change voting dates or change the registration procedures – all tactics that had been adopted in the past to prevent minority voting. Under the Act, the states would require prior Justice Department approval. The Section 5 provisions were set to expire in five years. However, in 1970 Congress extended these provisions for another five years. They were then extended in 1975 for seven years; in 1982 for another 25 years; and in 2006, under President Bush, Congress voted unanimously to extend these provisions for another 25 years.
Almost 50 years after Bloody Sunday and President Johnson’s speech to Congress, voting rights for minorities are once again under attack. On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over dismantling the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in particular getting rid of Section 5. The main argument from proponents of this move are whether states with long-standing history of racial discrimination must still gain permission from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws. Upon hearing the arguments, Justice Scalia gave his personal assertion on the 2006 congressional unanimous vote. He stated that the shift to near-unanimous support was “very likely attributable to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.” He further went on to say “I am fairly confident it will be re-enacted in perpetuity…unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution…It’s a concern that this is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress.”
Clearly, Justice Scalia needs to reread the Constitution because Section 2 of the 15th Amendment states that, “the Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article”. Therefore, the decision to uphold Section 5 of the Voting rights Act does in fact rest with Congress because they have the authority to protect the voting rights of the American people. However, regardless of the constitutionality of the Act, there are some states, 150 years later, that are still trying to pass laws that would deny voting rights to the very people the Act protects.
The right to vote is not a racial entitlement nor was it a gift from the government. The Act was enacted to enforce our constitutional rights, a right that was completely ignored by Confederate states for almost 100 years. It took Congress that long to make those promises a reality. The pillar of citizenship enacted in the 1860s applies to all, no matter your color, race or creed, which is the total opposite from a special entitlement.