Supreme Court considers South’s legacy and progress on voting rights

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images - The Supreme Court Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — At the top of the steps of Alabama’s elegant old Capitol, there’s a six-pointed bronze star marking the spot where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy.

At the foot of the steps is a historical marker dedicated to black citizens who in the 1960s dared to register to vote — “a constitutional right impeded by Gov. George Wallace” — and who were met “with state-sponsored terrorism.”

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And somewhere beyond those two frank reminders of the past is modern-day Alabama, which may or may not be just like the rest of America.

That is a question the Supreme Court will consider Wednesday. At issue is whether the guarantee of equality in Alabama, and elsewhere in the South, is the same as in the rest of the nation.

The court will review — for the sixth time since passage in 1965 — Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandates that federal authorities pre-approve any changes in voting laws here and in eight other states and numerous jurisdictions with a history of discrimination. It has survived each previous time.

The section is the hammer in what supporters say is the most effective civil rights legislation Congress has ever passed. They draw a straight line between the law and the election of the nation’s first African American president.

Those seeking to overturn Section 5 say it was once vitally needed and is now hopelessly outdated. “The violence, intimidation, and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains,” says the challenge filed by Shelby County, Ala., a fast-growing, mostly white suburb south of Birmingham.

It is fitting the test case comes from Alabama, where bloody resistance to African Americans’ voting rights was “particularly responsible” for making Section 5 necessary, the state concedes in its supporting brief to the Supreme Court.

Attorney General Luther Strange, who is white, like every statewide elected official in Alabama, filed a particularly frank brief that said the state had a well-earned place among the covered jurisdictions when the act was passed in 1965 and reauthorized in 1970, 1975 and 1982. But a 2006 reauthorization, which extended federal control for an additional 25 years, goes too far, he says.

“It is time for Alabama and the other covered jurisdictions to resume their roles as equal and sovereign parts of these United States,” Strange writes in the state’s brief.

In an interview, Strange said: “I’ve never tried to run away from the civil rights history of the state. Alabama was the epicenter of it — Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham. There’s no use trying to deny it. I choose to focus on the progress we’ve made, and I like to tell that story.”

Part of the Alabama success story Strange cites is the state legislature, one of the few in the country where the number of black lawmakers is roughly proportional to the state’s African American population.

But state Rep. John Knight (D), along with other black legislators, has filed a brief that urges the court to retain Section 5 and argues that the law’s work is not finished.

“There are so many different ways to discourage minorities from voting, and they’ve all been tried here in Alabama,” Knight said in an interview.

“There’s no question that had it not been for Section 5, had it not been for a Justice Department that was going to make sure the state was going to comply with the Voting Rights Act, we wouldn’t have the number of black officials we have, we wouldn’t have the number of black people voting we have,” said Knight, who was first elected in 1993 to represent Montgomery.

Ample contradictions

Perhaps no part of Alabama captures the contradictions of the place quite like Knight’s district.

It is home to both the First White House of the Confederacy and the Civil Rights Memorial Center, where cool water flows over the names of martyred activists in a Maya Lin-designed sculpture. Not far from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, are blunt reminders of Montgomery’s slave markets.

After the Rosa Parks Museum’s reminders of Jim Crow laws and the state’s official racism, the short walk to the city’s nearby exposed-brick entertainment district is a trip to another land.

At the bustling Central restaurant, black and white servers deliver wood-roasted oysters and coffee-brined duck to a crowd of black and white diners who would look at home in Northeast Washington’s gentrified Atlas District. The requisite for up-to-date urban renewal is in place, Knight said: “We have loft apartments.”

‘But all is not well’

Knight, 66, an administrator at Alabama State University, said he has “lived through a dream” in the place where he was born. “Look at this downtown,” he said. “You see blacks and whites mingling together. But all is not well.”

He added: “When you look at the Alabama Supreme Court, there are no blacks there. When you look at the governor’s Cabinet, very few blacks in the Cabinet. . . . We have an economic development department in the state of Alabama that’s lily-white.”

Knight is part of a federal lawsuit challenging a redistricting plan adopted by the Republican-controlled legislature. The challengers say the plan would pack minorities into certain districts to reduce their influence in others. The result would virtually eliminate the state’s few remaining white Democratic officeholders, they say.

“For over a century, the party of white supremacy was the Democratic Party,” they say in the lawsuit. “Now it is the Republican Party pursing a policy of isolating black voters and their elected representatives.”

In the case that brings the issue of votings rights back to the Supreme Court this week, the small Shelby County town of Calera — dubbed the “heart of the heart of Dixie” — held an election over the objections of the Justice Department. It resulted in the defeat of the town’s only black council member.

“So,” asked Sam Walker, a tour guide and historian at the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, “is that racist or not?’ ”

The attorney general agreed there have been isolated incidents in the state. “Alabama, as I say often and as we say in our brief, we’re not perfect,” Strange said. “We haven’t solved all our racial problems. But we’re not any different from any other state dealing with the same issues.”

Recent history, he said, underscores the state’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act, he said. Some may be unhappy with redistricting, but that’s politics, he said, noting that the plan was cleared by the Justice Department because it would not diminish minority representation. In fact, he said, it has been 16 years since the department objected to a statewide pre-clearance submission from Alabama.

In a state that once virtually refused to register black voters, the difference between white and black registration has been eliminated, the state says. And in the 2004 and 2008 general elections, black voter turnout was greater than that of whites.

The Obama administration’s defense of the law reminds the court that Congress took note of progress in the nine states covered by Section 5 — besides Alabama, they are the Southern states of Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as Alaska and Arizona — and decided such a strict measure was still needed.

“Congress held 21 hearings, amassing thousands of pages of evidence,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. wrote in the federal government’s brief. “And in an era of sharp partisan division within the legislative branch, Congress voted nearly unanimously to reauthorize Section 5.”

Included among those voting yes in 2006 were Alabama’s two conservative Republican senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions. Spokesmen for both last week said they stood behind their votes.

“There’s a very easy explanation for that,” said state Solicitor General John C. Neiman Jr. “A person who voted against Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act would be called in the press and in the public debate someone who voted against voting rights. The path of least resistance for Congress was simply to re-up for another 25 years.”

The Supreme Court’s conservative justices seemed receptive to Neiman’s assessment the last time the issue came up, in 2009. The court sidestepped the constitutionality of Section 5 then, but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. delivered a warning.

“Things have changed in the South,” he wrote, adding: “The evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance. The statute’s coverage formula is based on data that is now more than 35 years old, and there is considerable evidence that it fails to account for current political conditions.”

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