Columnists Earl Ofari Hutchinson Opinion

THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Why we still need a Selma

One week after Alabama state troopers bludgeoned civil rights demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma on March 7, 1965, a visibly shaken Lyndon Johnson called for and addressed a joint session of Congress.

His message was clear. His administration would pull out all stops to pass a voting rights bill, which was the objective of the Selma marches. Five months later, the bill became the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The act ignited an explosion in the number of black, Hispanic, Asian, women and Native American voters and the election of thousands of their number to local state and federal offices. The jewel in the crown in the act was the election in 2008 of President Barack Obama.

In the 50 years since the Selma march and the passage of the act, a succession of GOP leaders, state legislators, girded by various federal court decisions, and the reflexive rightist four, and sometimes, five U.S. Supreme Court justices, have waged relentless war on the act. The deal in the initial passage of the act was that it be renewed every 25 years.

When the act came up for renewal in 1981, hard-line ultraconservatives in the administration of then President Ronald Reagan made loud threats to push Reagan to oppose its renewal. They were just that, idle threats.

Reagan, with no fanfare, signed the renewal legislation. When the act came up for renewal again in 2006, the threats to thwart the law, turned into a mini-movement in Congress to delay or even block passage. A pack of House Republicans stalled the legislation for more than a week and demanded that hearings be held.

The standard attack line has always been that it punishes the South for past voting discrimination sins, and that the thousands of black and Hispanic legislators in the South, Southwest and West is supreme proof that the crude, naked race-based voter suppression ploys were a thing of a long gone past. Bush signed the renewal order.

But the GOP had served notice that the early saber rattle against the act was a just a warm-up for a full throttle frontal assault. The GOP pecked at eroding the act with the rash of photo identifications laws that the GOP governors and GOP-controlled state legislatures enacted in recent years. The aim was to discourage and damp down the number of minority and poor voters that overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

Then enter the Supreme Court. In the Shelby County v. Holder case in 2013, the Alabama county claimed the act is outdated, discriminatory and a blatant federal intrusion into state’s rights. The lawsuit explicitly wanted the centerpiece of the act, Section 5 dumped.

That is the provision that mandates that states get “preclearance” from the Justice Department before making any changes in voting procedures. State attorneys general in several states have endorsed the Alabama County’s challenge. Chief Justice John Roberts bluntly said that things have changed in the South and that blacks supposedly vote everywhere in the South without any barriers or prohibitions.

Clarence Thomas, to no surprise, went even further and flatly called Section 5 of the act unconstitutional and left no doubt if and when he had the chance he would knock the act out completely. The provision was scrapped.

GOP-controlled legislatures in six states in the South and Southwest where voting rights procedures were covered by that part of the act wasted no time in passing a slew of restrictive voting laws that the Voting Rights Act had previously blocked. That brought the total to more than 20 states that have passed tough voting restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Even though black and Hispanic voters did vote in big numbers in the 2012 election, in many districts they still had to stand in endless lines, have their IDs thoroughly scrutinized, had no bilingual ballots, found voting hours shortened, and had to file time-consuming legal challenges in state and federal courts to get injunctions to stop the more onerous of the voter suppression laws from being enforced.

This was only part of the story of the roadblocks the GOP has thrown up. A study by the Alliance for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group, documented legions of complaints and challenges filed by the Justice Department and voting rights groups to discriminatory changes that county registrars have made to eliminate or narrow down the number of voters in predominantly minority districts.

The tales of supposed massive voter fraud egged on by civil rights, voter rights advocacy groups and orchestrated by the Democrats has been just that, self-serving tales. There is no evidence to support any of the GOP charges of massive voter hanky-panky.

Fifty years after the bloody Selma march shocked Johnson and the nation into taking fast track action to right a glaring historic wrong, namely the denial of the right to vote to millions in America, that right is still under intense assault. That is why we still need a Selma today. 

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author, political analyst and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is also the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.