Past transgressions in voting rights for blacks continue to haunt the American South — or at least haunt those people who fought against blacks having any voting rights.
Alabama was the latest Southern state to be told by the United States Department of Justice that, no, we are not allowing you to come out from under monitoring of your elections put in place after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
I know that Mississippi in recent years also challenged (and lost) the federal law that mandates federal scrutiny of its elections, particularly the redrawing of voting district lines. The monitoring law affects a sweep of southern states, including Georgia, and even some counties in California, New York, South Dakota, Michigan and New Hampshire.
What it basically says is that even minute changes in election law in those places must be precleared by the Justice Department before they can be instituted. An Associated Press story out of Washington said that the preclearance coverage has been “triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives (and) Hispanics.”
The AP report added that the feds can point to several examples of discrimination in recent times, including “legislators in Mississippi and Georgia using racial epithets during redistricting debates.” Lawmakers in those states went to the podium of either the House of Representatives or Senate in their Capitol building during discussions of voting redistricting and used the, uh, well, I think you and I both know which word was employed in said discussions.
The whole matter of discrimination in voting rights has been on the nation’s election table since this nation came into existence. The issue reared its ugly head in modern times in the 1960’s when there were killings and destruction of much personal property across the South during the Civil Rights Movement, fought over constitutionally-granted rights and privileges denied to blacks.
After the wars of 1964, the number of minority voters rose steadily in most states except my native Mississippi, where the black voting registration rate was still less than 10 percent by 1965. That rate had jumped by then to 31.6 percent in Louisiana, 27.4 percent in Georgia and 19.3 percent in Alabama. Hundreds of thousands more blacks had become registered voters in 1966 and the participation rate has grown exponentially to where today anybody who meets the voter requirements, can vote. Even Mississippi has made amazing gains, and now has the largest percentage of black elected officials in the land.
But, don’t think that voting rights discrimination has been erased in the states governed by preclearance. The AP reported that one Alabama town near Birmingham in 2006 redrew its voting districts for city council seats, eliminating its only black-majority district, causing the black incumbent to lose out. The Justice Department tossed the election, restored the black-majority district and the incumbent won back his seat. Obviously, the battle for voting rights isn’t over.
Lest anyone believe this is some conspiracy by Democrats, the Justice Department in that case came under George W. Bush’s presidency.
Mac Gordon is a retired reporter who lives near Blakely and writes an occasional opinion column for The Albany Herald.