By Marc H. Morial
“Although the court did not deny that voter discrimination still exists, it gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law. Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote. I want to say to them, Come and walk in my shoes.”
– Congressman John Lewis, reacting to the U.S Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013
For those of us whose work is focused on racial justice and voting rights, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act felt like a punch to the gut.
For John Lewis, it can only have felt like a knife to the heart.
When Lewis died last week at the age of 80, every tribute mentioned that his skull was fractured by an Alabama state trooper on March 7, 1965, as he led 600 peaceful marchers out of Selma, Alabama, on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery.
By then, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the organization Lewis led, had been working to register Black voters in the South for three years. He called the Selma Campaign “the single event that gave birth to the Voting Rights Act” – landmark legislation that was seven decades in the making.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 enshrined the doctrine of “separate but equal” and unleashed the Jim Crow era of legal segregation across the South. But these laws could not survive unless Black people were prohibited from voting and electing anti-segregation lawmakers. It was the decision Williams v. Mississippi in 1898 that allowed the disenfranchisement of Black citizens through poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses that exempted white voters from these restrictions.
Even if they could navigate the nearly impossible restrictions, Black people could be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, boycotted and denied loans for registering to vote.
The rise of “Citizenship Schools” that helped Black registrants study for the literacy test prompted Alabama officials to change the test 4 times in less than two years. In her memoir, Witness to Change, my mother, Sybil Haydel Morial, described the humiliation of Clara, a woman she had tutored: “That mean man was so ugly to me. He told me I wasn’t smart enough to vote. I know I had the right identification, I read the Preamble [to the Constitution] without any mistakes and I passed that citizenship test. My age in years, months and days was right, because you helped me figure it out. Mrs. Morial, will I ever be able to vote?”
But far more than these onerous literacy tests, it was the threat of violence that kept Black people from voting. “If economic pressure proved insufficient, the Ku Klux Klan was ready with violence and mayhem. Cross-burnings. Night riders. Beatings. Rapes. Church bombings. Arson of businesses and homes. Murder and mob lynchings, drive-by shootings and sniper assassinations,” according to the Civil Rights Movement Archive.
John Lewis knew he was taking his life in his hands, not just that day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but every day he spent working to register Black voters. But, he told an interviewer in 2015,”We didn’t have a choice. I think we had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history, and we couldn’t—we couldn’t turn back. We had to go forward. We became like trees planted by the rivers of water. We were anchored. And I thought we would die. I first thought we would be arrested and go to jail, but I thought it was a real possibility that some of us would die on that bridge.”
John Lewis paid for the Voting Rights Act with his own blood. The Supreme Court made a mockery of his sacrifice when it gutted the Act, saying the country had changed and states no longer needed federal oversight to protect Black voters from discrimination. States across the nation wasted no time in showing the Court how wrong it was, enacting a torrent of racially-motivated voter suppression laws. Shelby v. Holder, a blatant violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, will live in infamy among the Court’s most grievous mistakes, along with Plessy v. Ferguson, Williams v. Mississippi and Dred Scott v. Sandford.
In December, Lewis presided over the House of Representatives as it passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act, to repair the damage of Shelby. The Senate’s continued refusal to pass the bill would be an insult to Lewis’ memory.
In his words, “We must confront the fact that there are forces in our society that want to reverse that democratic legacy. They do not want to be subject to the will of the people, but prefer a society where the wealthy have a greater say in the future of America than their numbers would dictate. They want to eliminate checks and balances and pave a route to a freewheeling environment for corporations to make money, even at the expense of the least and most vulnerable among us. All we have to do is say no to this tyranny and begin to stand up and speak out for the heritage of equality and justice most Americans believe in.”