People wait in line outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, to listen to oral arguments in the Shelby County, Ala., v. Holder voting rights case. The justices are hearing arguments in a challenge to the part of the Voting Rights Act that forces places with a history of discrimination, mainly in the Deep South, to get approval before they make any change in the way elections are held. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
So, is the Civil War finally over, 152 years after it started? Is Abraham Lincoln’s work done?
This morning, the Supreme Court declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, ruling that the former Confederate states should no longer have to submit changes in their voting regulations to the Justice Department for pre-approval.
“Section 4 of the Act applied that requirement only to some States — an equally dramatic departure from the principle that all States enjoy equal sovereignty,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion. “There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”
The Court is essentially declaring an end to Reconstruction, a process that began with the passage of the 13th Amendment -- the legislative victory dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie Lincoln. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, Its successor, the 14th Amendment, extended citizenship and voting rights to African-Americans. However, the defeated Southern states ignored those rights for nearly 100 years, as part of their effort to preserve the ante-belleum racial order, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided the means to enforce them.
Roberts’s decision basically says that the South has been reconstructed. And there are statistics to back him up. Mississippi was once the most intransigent of segregationist states. In 1961, fewer than 7 percent of Mississippi’s African-Americans were registered to vote. It was 49 years ago this week that Freedom Riders Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were kidnapped and murdered by white supremacists in Neshoba County.
Now, Mississippi has over 800 black elected officials -- more than any state in the union. Not even Illinois, with our history of black senators, can match that total. In Alabama, Gov. George Wallace once declared his state would practice “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Today, 23 percent of Alabama state legislators are black -- the highest proportion of any state.
That’s not to say that racial discrimination still does not exist in voting. It does. But it’s everywhere. In 2008, officials in Lake County, Ind., tried to suppress the minority vote by limiting early voting to the county courthouse in Crown Point, far from the black and Latino neighborhoods of Gary. The Voting Rights Act will still include provisions to challenge such discrimination. But it will no longer single out Southern states for their historical offenses against equality.
Democrats think that’s a step forward. President Obama issued this statement:
I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today. For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.
But it’s possible the decision is also a step forward, toward ending national divisions that have persisted since the Civil War.