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The Voting Rights Act, 40 years later

Marchers in Atlanta yesterday; LBJ signs voting rights bill, August 1965.

“If you just clear it out everywhere and make it age, and read and write, no tests…(no) Constitution to memorize or anything else. And then you have to put them in the post office,” he continued. “The federal employees – that, I control… I just don’t see how anybody can say a man can fight in Vietnam but he can’t vote in the post office.”

President Lyndon Johnson, in a 1965 strategy conversation on the Voting Rights Act with Martin Luther King Jr.

Yesterday, over 10,000 marched in Atlanta commemorating the passage of the Act. President Johnson was a real leader on this issue, clearly aware of the negative impact it would have on the Democratic white South, but also keenly aware that signing it was the right thing to do. [That’s something woefully missing in today’s Democratic Party, witness the timidity, no, tortured silence, on gay civil rights.]

Today, 40 years after the act was signed into law, the literacy tests and poll taxes that prevented non-whites from taking part in the voting process are long gone. In addition, many more non-whites now vote and have been elected to office.

And Edwin Dorn, a professor and former dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs who specializes in civil rights legislation, is among the many who believe Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act has shaped party politics in his native region ever since.

“The impact of the Voting Rights Act was profound in two ways in that it did dramatically increase the level of black political power in the United States,” he said. “But the other, more ironic effect is that it produced a Republican South.” Dorn points to the congressional redistricting in Texas and elsewhere, where “majority-minority” districts have been drawn to help non-white candidates get elected. The tactic, Dorn said, had the effect of ensuring that surrounding districts, lacking minorities who would reliably vote for Democrats, now go to the Republican party.

“Ironically, both black political leaders and white Republicans found an advantage in concentrating minority votes in a few districts,” he said. Johnson’s prediction the Democrats might lose control of the South because of his pro-civil rights stance is well documented, but those who knew him say it was a risk he was willing to take.

With renewal of provisions to expire in 2007, there hasn’t been a clear message from the White House about what it intends to do. Our president just hasn’t a grip on the significance of the events that necessitated the Voting Rights Act. I posted about it on the Blend back in January (Dunce Bush: “didn’t know anything about” the Voting Rights Act), citing Clarence Page’s column on Chimpy’s reaction to a question on extending the Act.

While courageous American troops and Iraqi civilians risk life and limb for the right to vote in war-torn Iraq, President Bush has made the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus, currently all Democrats, more than a little nervous about how much he values voting rights back here at home.

According to various eyewitnesses at a private meeting in the White House Cabinet Room last week, the president was characteristically cordial, yet remarkably non-committal in responding to a wide range of questions, mostly about racial disparities concerning such issues as employment, education, health care and legal rights. But the most “mind-boggling moment,” in the words of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), came after Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) asked the president, “Do we have your support in extending and strengthening the 1965 Voting Rights Act when it comes up for renewal in 2007?

The president responded, according to witnesses, in a way that made caucus jaws drop: He did not know enough about that particular law to respond to it, he said, and that he would deal with the legislation when it comes up.

Page, who is one year younger than the president, thought that that Bush’s response reflected the differences in the parallel realities experienced by black and white America. “I have no problem remembering how effectively the act ended poll taxes, literacy tests, gerrymandering, intimidation and other shenanigans that diluted or eliminated black voting power.”

This reminds me of another serious piece of GOP propaganda that is part of the party’s revisionist history — “The 2005 Republican Freedom Calendar, which highlights “a half century of civil rights achievements by the party of Lincoln.” This flaming pile of crap, directed at the black community (thanks Ken Mehlman), claims, among other things (and debunked here):

The calendar: describes the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as Republican triumphs.

Reality: The calendar does not mention that Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, won five Deep South states because of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act.

Reality: It does not mention that Republican George H.W. Bush opposed the Civil Rights Act in his 1964 run for the U.S. Senate.

Reality: The calendar does not mention that Ronald Reagan, in his 1966 campaign to become governor of California, endorsed repeal of California’s Fair Housing Act, saying, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.”

The calendar: “every single African-American in Congress until 1935 was a Republican.”

Reality: Apparently there’s been a subsequent big backslide — the 109th Congress has 43 black Democrats – and not a single black Republican.

There is also a good long interview with Andrew Young Voting Rights Act, and the current state of democracy (or lack thereof) in the country, and it can be found on NPR’s web site.

Thanks to House Blender and Julien’s List contributor Holly for the pointer.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding