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Those seeking to overturn Section 5 say it was once vitally needed and is now hopelessly outdated.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.