Sometime this spring the Supreme Court will rule on an Alabama county’s challenge to a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. More than likely the court will split, five to four, with the decisive vote coming from Justice Anthony Kennedy. If oral arguments are any indication, his decision will be shaped by a single question. Have we — at long last — overcome?

Not yet, University of Delaware historian Gary May makes clear in his exemplary account of the landmark law. Then again, we had a very long way to go. Slavery had been dead for only five years when the 15th Amendment guaranteed freedmen the right to vote. But in the late 19th century, Southern whites used a variety of tactics, legal and extra-legal, to make the amendment meaningless. Nowhere was disenfranchisement more thoroughgoing than in the Deep South: by the early 1900s only 2 percent of Alabama’s eligible African Americans managed to cast ballots.

African Americans repeatedly demanded their rights be restored; Rosa Parks’s first venture into activism came in a 1943 voter registration drive, a dozen years before her refusal to move to the back of a Montgomery bus. May focuses on the climactic struggle, launched by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Selma, Ala., 50 miles west of Montgomery, in the summer of 1962. For the next two-and-a-half years, the campaign limped along, its efforts continually undercut by the city’s brutal sheriff, Jim Clark. Then, in January 1965, Martin Luther King came to town.

SNCC wasn’t pleased to see him. King was a grandstander, its organizers thought — “de Lawd,” they called him behind his back — always willing to seize the spotlight from the local folks who’d built the movement he supposedly led. But there was no doubting his charisma. Within a few weeks of his arrival, Selma’s long-struggling campaign was filling the streets with protesters, daring Sheriff Clark to stop them, waiting for him to break, knowing that when he did he’d create a crisis profound enough to reach King’s real target: the president of the United States.

May moves nimbly through the swirl of events that led to the Voting Rights Act. The first bursts of official violence, which culminated in the death of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot by a state trooper in the midst of a march the authorities were determined to stop; the infamous assault on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, played out before the television cameras; King’s brilliant call for people of faith to join the campaign; a moment of moral outrage transformed into a national crusade, with ministers and rabbis, priests and nuns, pouring into Selma, hundreds of pickets in front of the White House, 10,000 circling the federal building in downtown Detroit, 15,000 in Harlem, 20,000 on the Boston Common; another victim, the Rev. James Reeb, who had come down from Massachusetts to join the cause, bludgeoned to death by white thugs as he walked out of a Selma restaurant.

‘Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy’ by Gary May. (Basic Books)

It took President Lyndon Johnson a week to respond to the pressure. But when he did, on March 15, 1965, it was one of the most electric moments of the postwar era. That evening he went up to Capitol Hill to announce that his administration would be introducing legislation to assure African Americans the vote. Halfway through his address, though, he went a step further. Standing in front of the Congress he’d once dominated, in front of a television audience of 70 million, in front of history, Johnson made himself one with the movement. Its cause, he said, “must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And — we — shall — overcome.”

The extraordinary promise of that moment inevitably gave way to the practicalities of the political process. May devotes the final third of “Bending Toward Justice” to the bill’s passage, implementation and repeated renewal. Johnson signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965, less than six months after the bloodshed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Four times Congress has extended its life, most recently in 2006. It’s had a profound effect. In 1965, African Americans held about 1,400 elected offices in the United States, says May. Now they hold 10,000, including the White House, and one of Alabama’s seven congressional seats. Selma’s seat, as it happens.

But the job’s not done, he insists. Though it’s rare, outright racial manipulation still occurs. In 2008, Calera, Ala. — a municipality in the county that’s currently challenging the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act — redrew its electoral boundaries to drive out the one African American on its city council; only the Voting Rights Act prevented the change from going through. More broadly, the Act may be the only legal defense against the tidal wave of voter identification laws sweeping through the states. Last year, a federal court used the Act’s provisions to invalidate Texas’ new ID law, which could have prevented half-a-million people from voting in the 2012 elections, a disproportionate share of them African American and Hispanic.

It’s a depressing thought that, almost half-a-century after those vicious days in Selma, the vote isn’t secure; worse still to know that the law those days produced is imperiled — unless Justice Kennedy answers the question that’s been laid in front of him just as President Johnson did on that remarkable evening all those years ago. It’s all of us who must overcome injustice. And we shall overcome. Someday.

Kevin Boyle teaches history at Ohio State University. His book “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age” received the National Book Award for nonfiction.


The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy

By Gary May

Basic. 314 pp. $28.99