Mar 07, 2013 - Issue 507

Attacking Voting Rights
The Audacity of History

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About two weeks ago, Mississippi ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and nearly 50 years since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made its replacement, segregation, otherwise known as "Jim Crow", illegal. This is about 18 years after the state  assembly voted unanimously to rectify this "oversight", which in itself is extraordinary.

Then, on February 27th, Shelby County, located in the state of Alabama brought to the Supreme Court a challenge to the Section 5 of the VRA, which embodies the process known as "preclearance', in which the parties must petition the Department of Justice about any proposed changes in voting procedure or redistricting activity. There are currently 9 states, and certain jurisdictions of seven others who are subject this provision in some form or another.

It cited its purported progress regarding voter registration and turnout of its African American residents as proof. This is in the aftermath of an election season that saw more concerted voter intimidation and suppression activity in the almost 50 years that have passed since, much under the direction of ultraconservative governors and state legislators who came to power during the 2010 midterm elections, where the combination of apathy and racial resentment created the perfect storm for the reintroduction of a states rights agenda.

Author and musician John M. Wesley, who grew up in Ruleville,MS, mentored by his godmother, the renown civil rights icon Fanny Lou Hamer, had this reaction when asked how he felt about the most recent challenge.

"In an age in which the issue of "sovereignty" is raising its head again, exactly 50 years after George Wallace made it a national campaign platform in 1963, this is no time to mess with "Section 5" of the Voting Rights Act." he stated firmly." The federal safeguards must remain in place if we are going to continue to move toward a level playing field in politics."

He also reflected upon the ratification, and also upon what his late godmother might say about the most recent challenge to the VRA.

"The fact that it has taken Mississippi this long to ratify the 13th amendment speaks for itself" Wesley stated. He continued: "As for what I believe Mrs. Hamer's response would be, I would say she would caution minorities that without federal oversight, there remains sufficient fertile ground for disenfranchisement to reconstitute itself via: campaign contributions, gerrymandering, rigged voting, faulty electronic machines, lack of vote tracking, and manipulation of the fractured Hispanic vote in such a way (since the majority, once here illegally or otherwise, move to established Black and low income communities) that could eventually erode gains won during the Civil Rights Movement. Vigilance!"

History presents immutable facts about what has happened in the past, although many will interpret them differently,based on their perspective and personal experiences, particularly if they were a part of those seminal events in times of great societal transition. It also reinvents itself, particularly when a generation passes on and institutional memory becomes cloudier. Through this reinvention process,especially in the 21st century, parts of it regarding how custom and attitude affect public policy become vague reference points. This is especially where billions of pieces of information are accessible with the click of a computer button, which can have the effect of obfuscation rather than education. The responses of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia last week made this perfectly clear, where rapid fire absurdities and unabashed subjective opinions were inserted in their arguments, in an activist attempt to insert themselves into the legislative process.

Vigilance, indeed, is needed to filter through the white noise of our time, and to safeguard remedies put in place as a response to history, to continue to protect the gains made by those measures which made history themselves, affecting the history of the future, which is now. Editorial Board Member, Amy V. Simmons is a freelance writer and  a member of  the National Association of Black Journalists, the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association. Click here to contact Ms. Simmons.