Dr. Jessica Johnson: Voting Rights Act in jeopardy

As I was reading about the current legal challenges regarding Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, I, and I’m sure many others, immediately thought about the triumphant Selma-to-Montgomery March in Alabama 58 years ago. Over 2,000 civil rights marchers led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his wife Coretta, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and a young John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during their 54-mile trek to Montgomery to push for national legislation to protect the rights of Blacks to vote. A little over a century had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation, and African Americans, while citizens by law, were still suffering great injustice in the Deep South. The Voting Rights Act was needed as a safeguard while exercising their God-given right to fully participate in our nation’s democracy. When the VRA was initially enacted on August 6, 1965, it was viewed as upholding the 15th Amendment, which bars the federal government and states from denying a citizen’s right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Along with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act brought a legal end to the southern Jim Crow laws. Since the late 60s, the VRA has been amended five times, but now the core of this landmark measure is in serious jeopardy.

Toward the end of November, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision that private plaintiffs and groups cannot challenge or bring discrimination lawsuits under Section 2 of the VRA. Section 2 extended electoral protections by prohibiting voting changes that would weaken voting rights and fair representation of minorities. The Eighth Circuit’s ruling means that organizations that have long fought voter suppression, such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, would not be able to advocate for those who face present obstacles. Only the Justice Department would be able to handle these types of cases under the VRA. Back in June, it appeared that Section 2 would be safe a little while longer as African American voters in Alabama won a key Supreme Court victory in the Allen v. Milligan redistricting case. Their earlier victory in a lower-court ruling was upheld, which found that an Alabama congressional map was discriminatory due to only having one predominately Black seat out of seven districts. The Section 2 provisions sustained in this case will force Alabama to draw new maps for the 2024 elections. The recent ruling of the Eighth Circuit will most likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, and since Section 2 is the remaining provision of the VRA for similar cases like Allen, the current state of the law moving forward is uncertain.

The gutting of the VRA has been a major concern in recent years with the Supreme Court striking down Section 4 of the law in 2013. Section 4 used a formula that required states with a history of voter discrimination to get pre-approval from the Justice Department before changing their voting requirements. One may ask why do we still need these VRA protections in our current time? Obviously, ridiculously unfair practices such as Black voting registration applicants being asked “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” in Mississippi during the 1940s and 50s no longer occur. However, when there are violations as the Allen case revealed, there still needs to be what Democracy Docket describes as an “indispensable tool to challenge racially discriminatory maps in court.” At the time of the Allen ruling, Democracy Docket reported there were 31 pending cases “alleg[ing] Section 2 claims” in federal court.

When thinking about the turbulent history in the voting rights struggle, it’s sad that those hard-won battles are now in danger of being rescinded. Regarding this ongoing fight, I recall King’s paraphrased quote of Amos 5:24 in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” King and his other faithful civil rights leaders leaned on their faith in God that justice would prevail against racial prejudice and voter oppression and denial in our country. The leaders of the Selma march that ended in the violence of Bloody Sunday told the peaceful protesters to kneel and pray before they were tear gassed by Alabama state troopers. That spiritual defiance helped galvanize the march to Montgomery, and it’s going to take that same faith and resilience of the past to ensure voting freedoms continue to be protected in the future.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.