No threat to black voting rights

September 03, 1998|By Leonard Pitts

PERHAPS YOU'VE heard the news that has rocked some segments of black America. If not, be advised: The Voting Rights Act expires in 2007. Unless Congress renews it, black people will lose their precious right to vote.

In this moment of greatest anguish, in the face of this threat to one of our fundamental freedoms, there's only one thing I can say to worried black Americans:

Get a grip.

It's just a stupid rumor, folks. Been ricocheting around the Internet for a year or more. And it's not true, not even a little bit.

A constitutional provision

In the first place, black voting rights are guaranteed not by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but by the 15th Amendment of 1870. And in the second place, the only thing up for renewal in 2007 is a provision of the act requiring Southern states to get federal permission to change their election laws -- and it's already been renewed three times before.

There is no threat to black voting rights. But try telling that to some black people.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, has been giving it his best. He's written a newspaper article, issued statements, held a news conference. And yet, he says that everywhere he goes, big cities and tiny towns, "Someone will come up and say, 'Congressman Lewis, what is this about we're going to lose our right to vote in 2007?' "

Mr. Lewis is, at least, the right man to ask. He grew up in the South during the years when black people's right to vote was systematically denied at the point of a gun. He was there in the days when a white man might demand that a black man read aloud and interpret the entire Constitution as a prerequisite to voting. Or answer nonsense questions like, "How many bubbles in a bar of soap?"

And Mr. Lewis was a key figure in the fight for change. Thirty-three years ago, he and Hosea Williams led a pivotal voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The march shattered in violence when state troopers on horseback charged into the group, an episode history has dubbed Bloody Sunday. Five months later, that Sunday of suffering was redeemed by the signing of the Voting Rights Act, which brought the election machinery of the unruly South under federal supervision.

All that to ensure black people access to the democratic process.

And yet, according to the Washington-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, only 45.4 percent of eligible black voters cast ballots in the last national election. That's worse than the not-exactly-impressive 49 percent rate at which voters overall cast ballots. Indeed, it's worse than pathetic.

Now some black folks -- including, I'd wager, a few who've never heard of John Lewis and couldn't show you their polling place for a million bucks -- are in a tizzy over the impending loss of their right to vote. Mr. Lewis describes the rumor as "widespread." According to published reports, black lawmakers have received hundreds of calls from alarmed black voters.

Me, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

I know the reasons some of us are vulnerable to stuff like this. Skepticism and mistrust are survival devices deeply ingrained in black people. We don't put too much faith in apparent progress. We feel, says Congressman Lewis, that whatever good thing we get, "someone, somewhere, is going to snatch it away."

I know that, but I also know this: Too many black folks spend too damn much time reacting. We're like a basketball team that only plays defense, never has the ball in its own hands, never controls its own destiny.

I'm fed up with that pattern. We spend all our energy fighting the things that are done to us and none on the things we might do for ourselves. React react react.

This flap over the Voting Rights Act is a prime example. John Lewis saw people bleed, suffer and die to win the ballot for blacks. Now he has lived to see blacks themselves scorn the ballot. "Makes me feel very bad," he says simply.

We ought to be ashamed. Instead some of us are jumping into crisis mode over some imaginary threat to the Voting Rights Act.

React react react. You'd think somewhere in there, we'd consider the obvious:

The best way to defend voting rights is to use them.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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