The Voting Rights Act

In case the recent Supreme Court ruling eviscerating Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act left you shrugging your shoulders, it should not have.  Bad, very bad stuff.  For a good summary of the cauldron from which the most important civil rights legislation ever passed came from see Louis Menand’s New Yorker (July 8 & 15) article.

There were, in the end, three marches from Selma. Each was momentous. King was not present at the first, which took place on March 7, 1965—“Bloody Sunday.” Some six hundred marchers, led by John Lewis, of sncc, and Hosea Williams, of the S.C.L.C., set off from Brown Chapel and crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge (Pettus was a Confederate general, later a Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan), over the Alabama River. At the far end, they found arrayed before them more than a hundred and fifty armed men: state troopers, under Lingo’s command, and Sheriff Clark’s posse, some on horseback. Wallace had ordered Lingo to take “whatever steps necessary” to stop the march. The troopers wore gas masks and carried nightsticks; Clark’s men were armed with clubs, whips, and cattle prods. One carried a rubber hose wrapped in barbed wire. A number of white Alabamans had come out to watch the sport.

So had the press. It’s all on film. The marchers halt fifty feet from the line of troopers. They are told that they have two minutes to turn around and go back to their homes and churches, but, well before two minutes have passed, the troopers charge into the line, beating everyone in sight. They are followed by Clark’s men on horseback, then by the tear gas.

Forty tear-gas cannisters were fired that day. The marchers were chased for a mile back to Selma. Troopers fired tear gas into the Carver housing project; posse men rode their horses up the steps of Brown Chapel. That evening, forty-eight million television viewers watching “Judgment at Nuremberg” on ABC had the movie interrupted for a fifteen-minute film of the attack. There was no voice-over. The only sounds were the thuds of clubs, reports of tear-gas cannisters being fired, the rebel yells of Clark’s posse, and the constant, hysterical screams of the victims.

At least ninety marchers were wounded, and Lewis had a fractured skull, but the effect was achieved. The film left no room for hairsplitting about provocation. Unarmed men and women on a highway were set upon by uniformed men wearing gas masks and riding horses. The Pettus Bridge was a turning point in American race relations and American history.

The majority of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roberts, argued that the times had changed, that the pre-clearance needed to change voting rules or requirements , as spelled out by Section 4, was based on old data, that the South (11 states) was New, and could not be singled out for long-ago perpetrations.

Immediately, Texas announced it would put into place changes in voting requirements which the pre-clearance had not allowed.

 

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