Fifty years ago this summer, idealistic college students headed south to help register disenfranchised black voters. They were beaten, their buses were burned and three went missing, only to be found tortured and killed. But this was nothing compared to the violence the disenfranchised suffered.
In striking down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, requiring districts with a history of racial discrimination to seek preclearance before changing election rules, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “our country has changed.”
Yet, it’s surprising how recent some of our worst racial offenses were. The people who participated in the Freedom Summers are still alive. Eleanor Holmes Norton, now a congresswoman, was with Medgar Evers shortly before he was shot in the back. Then, only 6 percent of Mississippi blacks were registered to vote, because as Rep. Ben Tillman once boasted, “We have done our level best [to disenfranchise blacks] we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, whose torture and murder helped launch the civil rights movement in 1955, would be 73 today; and from the first Civil Rights Act of 1866 to that of 1964, 3,218 blacks were lynched. During my childhood, federal marshals ensured the safety of black students facing hostile mobs as they entered desegregated schools; bombs killed four little girls at church and Bloody Sunday sent 80 to the hospital.
Of course, we still harbor powerful white supremacist groups and plenty of overt racism. Given changing national sentiments, however, it has largely gone undercover. In an interview now available online, political consultant Lee Atwater explains the “Southern Strategy,” or how to be racist without detection.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, [the n-word]. By 1968 you can’t say [that] — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a lot more abstract than [that].”
Nothing is more “abstract” than the recent changes governing elections, though studies have found voter impersonation statistically irrelevant, for example legislatures across the country are rushing to address it. Many, however, have been blocked.
A federal court found Texas laws “retrogressive,” placing “unforgiving burdens on the poor and racial minorities;” with the costs of obtaining a valid ID tantamount to a poll tax. Licenses to carry a concealed weapon were considered valid identification while those issued by universities and Medicare were not. Moreover, the Department of Justice considered the state’s redistricting efforts an attempt to dilute minority votes.
Texas, however, is but one example of the new discriminatory laws — the kind that can no longer be blocked through preclearance. In fact, shortly after the Supreme Court decision, Texas announced that it would enact its formerly restricted initiatives.
Other measures to stifle voting have included inhibiting registration efforts, fallacious purging of voter rolls, long waits to vote, the elimination of early voting important to workers and disinformation campaigns. The court found reductions to early voting in Florida akin to “closing polling places in African-American precincts,” and its long lines drove away at least 201,000 voters in 2012. An Ohio official justified changes there by stating that we shouldn’t accommodate “the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.”
Judge Posner, appointed by President Reagan, recently expressed regret over his earlier ruling upholding Indiana’s voter ID laws, which he now considers a form of voter suppression, and Pennsylvania’s proposals included using official licensing centers that in 31 counties were either nonexistent or open only one or two days a week.
Some proponents of these laws accidentally spill the beans, revealing their true intentions. State Rep. Mike Turzai, for example, boasted that “voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”
So, while we no longer burn buses or torture activists, it may not be entirely because the country has changed, but rather because those who would suppress the vote have learned to achieve their objectives by other means.
Mary Barker teaches political science at Syracuse University’s study abroad program in Madrid, Spain, and at the Universidad Pontificia Comillas. She is currently on leave to conduct research and is teaching at Salt Lake Community College.