When Rep. James Clyburn exhorted his fellow South Carolina African Americans to vote for Joe Biden, this is what he was really saying:
It’s time to stand up to the Republican-nominated federal judges and the Trump administration appointees who are reversing the expansion of democracy that the civil rights revolution sought for all Americans, black or white, straight or gay, native-born or immigrants.
In a sense, that has become one of the underlying messages of the surprising turn in the Democratic presidential race, as large numbers of African Americans in the South and moderate suburbanites in the North fueled the comeback that restored Biden’s front-runner status.
For the last dozen years, following Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Republicans on the state and national levels have engaged in a concerted effort to roll back the voting rights advances of the 1960s, epitomized by enactment in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act. Rather than expand the electorate, they have sought to contract it.
As a reporter and columnist, I’ve covered it all from the drives in the 1960s for voting rights and school desegregation in the South to the 21st century GOP counter-attack. Nothing has been more dispiriting than to see this negative turn in the federal courts, which once helped produce those advances, and the collapse of the bipartisan congressional coalitions, which enacted them.
Lest we forget, it’s only since Obama’s election that Republican fears of the ascending voting majority of liberal-to-moderate whites and the country’s growing minority population have prompted the GOP to turn away from the equal rights advances it initially helped to enact.
The most deadly assault has come from, of all places, the U.S. Supreme Court, most notably its 2013 decision that invalidated the provision of the Voting Rights Act that required the federal government to pre-clear voting law changes, mainly in Southern states like Texas with historical records of discrimination.
No institution so epitomizes the backlash as the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Three ground-backing Republican jurists, nominees of President Dwight Eisenhower, once led its assault on the segregation and illegalities of the past. Now, GOP appointees have made it a conservative bastion, most recently responsible for declaring unconstitutional a measure aimed at helping millions of less fortunate Americans, black and white, the Affordable Care Act.
Half of the states have enacted restrictive voting legislation since 2010, reports New York University’s Brennan Center, almost all by Republican governors and legislatures.
They include shortening pre-voting periods, enacting stricter voter identification requirements, reducing the number of voting places despite a growing population, and making registration harder for college students.
In a day of partisan gridlock, surely some of the astute jurists who wrote that decision knew that the chances of corrective measures were minimal. It’s worth noting that Chief Justice John Roberts has displayed animosity toward the Voting Rights Law from his earliest days as a young government lawyer.
Predictably, congressional Democrats introduced measures to update the law, and, equally predictably, Republicans looked the other way.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has sided in some key judicial cases with efforts to limit voting rights, unlike prior administrations, which supported efforts to expand voting.
When the history of Biden’s comeback is written, and especially if he goes on to win the Democratic nomination and defeat Trump, accounts will cite Clyburn’s endorsement as a crucial moment.
As Peggy Noonan noted in a perceptive column in The Wall Street Journal, his speech wasn’t just an endorsement but “a template” for Biden’s campaign “about the price you’ll pay to stand where you stand.”
And who could be a more appropriate person to do so than Clyburn? Before becoming a powerful congressional figure and the No. 3 leader of the House Democratic majority, he was one of those young African-American students who led the fight for equality by demonstrating and getting themselves arrested to tear down legal barriers.
Along with the even more fabled Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, Clyburn is one of the last of those groundbreakers to be active in public life. It would serve him and history well if the campaign for which his speech reversed Biden’s fortunes could become the administration that reversed the retreat from the commitments many believed had become a permanent part of American life.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: email@example.com.