A history of hostility to Voting Rights Act


NAACP officials did not uncork the champagne after the House voted to reauthorize the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. And there's good reason why: The law is not out of the legislative woods yet. The Senate still has to reauthorize it, and there's a core of doubting, wavering and even hostile senators that could waylay reauthorization. Their gripe is the same as that of House Republicans who stalled the legislation for more than a week. They say it punishes the South for past voting-discrimination sins, and they don't like the idea of bilingual ballots.

Even if the Senate reauthorizes the bill, and the betting odds are that it eventually will, the bill still will have to go to a conference committee for final approval. That will give opponents yet another shot at delaying it or watering it down.

That's no surprise. The Voting Rights Act has always been more controversial than many have believed. The popular myth is that congressional leaders were so appalled and enraged at the shocking TV clips of Alabama state troopers battering civil rights marchers in Selma in April 1965 that they promptly passed the landmark law that restored voting rights to Southern blacks. What's forgotten is that the marchers were there in the first place because the bill was badly stalled in the Senate and the House. It took nearly five months to get the bill passed.

Then, the Senate minority leader, Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen, dumped amendments on the bill that included scrapping the poll tax ban, adding exemptions and escape clauses for Southern counties, and excluding all states outside the South. House Republicans tacked more amendments on the bill to weaken it. The fight over these amendments dragged on for weeks in Congress. The biggest fight, though, was over the poll tax ban. The tax was the most odious and hated symbol of Southern racial exclusion. Civil rights leaders were enraged when the Senate refused to eliminate the poll tax, arguing that it wouldn't pass constitutional muster. House leaders agreed.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the congressional stonewall of the poll tax ban an "insult and a blasphemy" and vowed to launch mass protests against the watering down. Dr. King's threat and action worked, but only in part. Congress was horrified at the brutal attack on civil rights marchers and dumped most of the provisions tossed in to cripple or, as Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans hoped, kill the bill. But congressional leaders refused to budge on the poll tax. Dr. King read the political tea leaves and, rather than risk more delays, agreed to support the bill even without the outright poll tax ban.

The legislation instantly transformed Southern politics. The number of black elected officials in the South soared from a handful in 1965 to several thousand a decade later. That did not make the Voting Rights Act any more palatable to the white South. When it came time for renewal in 1982, a red flag that signaled disdain for the law again rose high. In memo after memo to his boss, Attorney General William French Smith, Assistant Attorney General John G. Roberts Jr. strongly criticized the legislation.

A quarter-century later, during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Mr. Roberts effusively praised the Voting Rights Act as one of our "most precious rights."

This was not a deft pirouette in which court nominees lie or deliberately garble their words to get confirmed. Mr. Roberts insisted that when he criticized the law, he was only articulating and defending the Reagan administration's position. President Ronald Reagan was hostile to affirmative action and expanded civil rights protections, but he signed the legislation and made no public criticism of it. Mr. Roberts' memos may or may not have articulated Mr. Reagan's true thinking on the Voting Rights Act, but they did articulate the contempt many Southern conservatives had for the law.

A quarter-century later, that hasn't changed. The legislation didn't stall in the House because a handful of diehard House Republicans are piqued over the provision for bilingual ballots and the continuing targeting of the Deep South. Nearly 100 House Republicans have expressed qualms about the Voting Rights Act and now demand that hearings be held. In the Senate, Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott drove home the South's four-decade, low-intensity fight against the law when he protested that the South was still "being treated differently."

If Mr. Lott had been in the Senate in 1965, he likely would have led the charge to scuttle the Voting Rights Act. A quarter-century later, as House Republican whip, he voted against its renewal.

The House reauthorization of the legislation has not ended the maneuvering by some senators and House Republicans to stall and even weaken the Voting Rights Act. Many still don't like it and aren't shy about saying so. And it's always been that way.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and social issues commentator, is the author of the forthcoming book "The Emerging Black GOP Majority." His e-mail is hutchinsonreport@aol.com.

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