In the bipartisan effort to strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965, key parts of which were eliminated by the Supreme Court last year, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and the Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP, would likely find themselves on opposite sides.
And that’s just if the debate were strictly political. Now, it has gotten personal, with Barber’s recent remarks about the tea party-backed Scott, the only black Republican in Congress, causing both sides to retreat to established positions and preconceptions.
“A ventriloquist can always find a good dummy,” the Rev. William Barber said about Scott during remarks in Columbia, S.C., as reported in The State. He added that “the extreme right wing down here (in South Carolina) finds a black guy to be senator and claims he’s the first black senator since Reconstruction, and then he goes to Washington, D.C., and articulates the agenda of the Tea Party.”
Scott’s response struck a different tone: “To reflect seriously on the comments a person, a pastor that is filled with baseless and meaningless rhetoric would be to do a disservice to the very people who have sacrificed so much and paved a way. … Rev. Barber will remind me and others of what not to do.”
Cue the outrage and the responses.
By any interpretation, there is a clear-cut winner in that rhetorical exchange — and it’s not the minister. However, Barber no doubt sees himself as warrior in an ongoing fight for justice. That view may not excuse his words; however it explains how difficult it will be to find common ground – on the issue of voting rights and more.
As it is, the proposed compromise on restoring muscle to the Voting Rights Act doesn’t include voter ID laws as violations – a loophole that excludes provisions many voting rights advocates have criticized. But many consider the proposal from Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) a start.
Since last year, Barber has been a leader of “Moral Monday” marches in North Carolina’s capital city of Raleigh and beyond, in protest of policies by GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican-led legislature. Those new laws affected everything from educational funding and health care to the voting restrictions that several groups, including the state NAACP and the U.S. Justice Department, are fighting in court. Barber has called the legislation a “monster voter suppression bill.”
“The system is not broken, they are breaking the system,” Barber said. “They are trying to go backwards when the state has already moved forward.”
Former secretary of state Colin Powell, a prominent African American Republican, also criticized the state’s voter ID law in a speech last year in a North Carolina.
In anticipation of the compromise congressional proposal on the Voting Rights Act, members of the Trotter Group, a national association of Africa American columnists who met with Scott in December, asked the senator to comment on what he might do. “I’d have to take a look,” Scott said then.
He criticized the 50-year formula that the original Voting Rights Act used, one that he said “penalizes states like South Carolina where we’ve had, perhaps, in my opinion … we’ve had more progress in the last 50 years than perhaps any other state.” Scott gave as proof the wide margins of victory in his own elections, though he won with a minority of the black vote.
You could say Scott is representing the conservative voters he needs to win in his 2014 race to make the Senate seat he was appointed to official. In South Carolina, he, like his Republican Senate colleague Lindsey Graham, is more likely to face a challenge from the right. Scott opposed a bipartisan budget deal and Medicaid expansion in South Carolina, though 65 percent overall and 85 percent of African Americans there favored it, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Those positions must rankle Barber, who has spent his life as an activist, with a focus this past year on voting rights. In state with a past of voting irregularities, an African American who has benefited from the work of civil rights pioneers and the legislation that resulted from their sacrifice is now a reliably conservative vote.
But resorting to harsh names doesn’t solve anything or cause anyone to rethink political philosophy, as Barber knows. His own North Carolina efforts have been denigrated by several North Carolina Republican legislators, with one calling the diverse demonstrations that resulted in nearly 1,000 arrests “Moron Monday,” and personal insults heaped on Barber.
Barber’s answer? The NAACP’s plans for 2014 include a Feb. 8 “Moral March” on Raleigh to continue the protests and advance the agenda of the civil rights organization, its allies and citizens upset at the legislature’s rightward turn.
Scott’s office has announced that the senator is holding a panel discussion Feb. 25 with current and former African-American senators in honor of black history month, Politico reported. Of course, it will be a small gathering at the Library of Congress, moderated by Senate Chaplain Barry Black, who is also African-American.
African Americans are like any other voters, individuals who are willing to listen to Scott explain how and why his party’s policies offer a better alternative. He, like Barber, has that right, opportunity and – perhaps both men would agree — duty.