The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Justice Thomas thinks he’s being ‘bullied’? He could use a history lesson.

People march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with placards bearing the image of Rep. John Lewis during commemorations for the 57th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," on March 6 in Selma, Ala. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
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The leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade prompted some reactions here in Washington, all of which were on the periphery of the issue at hand — a constitutional right to abortion. But still worth noting, given what’s at stake.

D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) introduced a bill that would create a “human rights sanctuary” for anyone traveling to our nation’s capital to get an abortion. An equally important D.C. contribution to the struggle would be, methinks, a citywide gift of time, treasure and talent toward maintaining Democratic control of the House and Senate. Because should Republicans flip Congress in the November midterms, I fear that chief among sanctuary seekers will be the District itself.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) used Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s leaked draft to underscore the vulnerability of reproductive rights. The Democrats’ bill to codify abortion rights into federal law won 49 votes, well short of the 60 necessary to proceed under Senate rules. The move, however, was not about enacting the Women’s Health Protection Act. Schumer hopes to spur voters off their couches to elect more pro-choice legislators in the fall. But the time for such symbolic gestures strikes me as having come and gone. The better choice is to start working on vote-getting to defeat Republican filibusters that take down not only reproductive rights measures, but voting rights legislation as well.

Another eye-widening occasion was Justice Clarence Thomas’s musings at the 11th Circuit Judicial Conference that respect for institutions is waning. Thomas bemoaned people who are unwilling to “live with outcomes we don’t agree with.” Said Thomas, clearly with Alito’s draft in mind, non-acceptance of the high court’s decisions “bodes ill for a free society.” It can’t be, he said, that institutions “give you only the outcome you want, or can be bullied” to do the same.

May I introduce, or reintroduce, Thomas and anyone else who thinks like he does, to the Southern Manifesto of 1956?

Talk about unwilling to “live with outcomes.”

The Southern Manifesto, signed by 19 senators and 77 House members, was a fullthroated condemnation of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision, which it denounced as “a clear abuse of judicial power.” Those 96 federal lawmakers encouraged states to resist implementing the court’s mandates.

Thomas bleats about being “bullied.” What about “Impeach Earl Warren”?

Following the Brown decision, written by Chief Justice Warren, “Impeach Earl Warren signs” appeared across the South. The impact of the Warren court was felt not only on issues of racial equality but also on political and personal rights, as well as criminal justice. Warren was publicly vilified by right-wing groups across the country.

Do we dare forget “Massive Resistance” — the collection of Virginia state laws passed in response to Brown that sought to forestall desegregation?

But most stunning is the astonishment of abortion rights supporters that the Supreme Court would dare overturn a hard-fought-for right.

“Been there, done that” doesn’t quite work. But “been there, been done to us” is spot on for Black people. Don’t rush to the history books. It’s happening in real time.

There’s good reason the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 is considered one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in U.S. history. Black voter registration rates in Mississippi increased from a mere 6.7 percent in 1965 to 59.8 percent two years later. In North Carolina, Black registration was 46.8 percent in 1965; after enactment of the law, it exceeded 80 percent in 1967. Likewise, Black voter registration roughly doubled in Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana between March 1965 and September 1967.

Black elected representation changed, also.

When the Voting Rights Act was passed, there were six Black members of the House and no Black people in the Senate. As of 2021, 57 House members are Black, which is about on par (13 percent) with the share of the overall U.S. population that is Black. There are three Black senators, including two from the Deep South.

More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, enter the Supreme Court (as today’s high court arrives nearly 50 years after Roe).

In the 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the court gutted the Voting Rights Act’s essen­tial provi­sion requir­ing juris­dic­tions with a history of discrim­in­a­tion to obtain federal govern­ment “preclear­ance” for any changes to their voting policies. That decision opened the way for state laws restrict­ing voting across the United States.

And the states poured through the opened floodgates with ballot-box barriers that warm the cockles of a Klansman’s heart.

So yes, as Alito’s draft would overturn Roe, something as precious as voting rights is being curtailed as we speak.

And there is no other answer in either case, but to dispense with the pandering, and moaning and groaning, and fight back at the polls as if there’s no tomorrow. Because where basic human rights are concerned, there isn’t.