Congress Must Continue the Battle for Civil Rights

The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act next week reminds us how much work Congress still has to protect it.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the White House Cabinet Room
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
June 26, 2014, 9:30 a.m.

Fifty years ago last week­end, civil-rights work­ers James Earl Chaney, An­drew Good­man, and Mi­chael Schwern­er were shot and killed by mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan, in­clud­ing a deputy sher­iff, in Phil­adelphia, Miss. Next Wed­nes­day marks the 50th an­niversary of the pas­sage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, one of the mo­nu­ment­al achieve­ments of the 20th cen­tury. Three weeks ago, on June 7, we had the 16th an­niversary of the murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, after he was chained to a pickup truck by white su­prem­acists and dragged 3 miles, mostly while con­scious, with his head­less body thrown in front of an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an grave­yard. And Wed­nes­day marked the first an­niversary of Shelby County v. Hold­er, the 5-4 Su­preme Court rul­ing writ­ten by Chief Justice John Roberts that evis­cer­ated the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965.

The story of the Civil Rights Act has been told vividly and won­der­fully in two new books by journ­al­ists Todd Purdum (An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Pres­id­ents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and Clay Ris­en (The Bill of the Cen­tury: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act). Purdum brought his book to life a week ago in a talk at the As­pen In­sti­tute, weav­ing the re­mark­able tale of the mi­ra­cu­lous pas­sage of the bill — mi­ra­cu­lous not so much in the fact that a bill made it through the labyrinth of the le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess (after all, we had seen a weak and watered-down civil-rights bill pass in 1957), but that it was a strong bill. Many her­oes in­side and out­side gov­ern­ment made it hap­pen. Lyn­don John­son was a tower­ing fig­ure, as were Hubert Humphrey, Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr., A. Philip Ran­dolph, and oth­ers in the civil-rights move­ment. Joe Rauh and oth­ers in the lib­er­al com­munity were also key play­ers, and labor and the faith com­munity were vi­tal as well.

But it is clear from both these books that there would not have been a mean­ing­ful Civil Rights Act, much less the Vot­ing Rights Act in 1965, without the ef­forts of Re­pub­lic­ans, es­pe­cially Rep. Bill Mc­Cul­lough of Ohio, Rep. Clar­ence Brown of Ohio; and sen­at­ors in­clud­ing Tom Kuchel of Cali­for­nia, Jac­ob Javits of New York, and es­pe­cially Ever­ett Dirk­sen of Illinois, the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er in the Sen­ate. Mc­Cul­lough, Brown, and Dirk­sen were strong con­ser­vat­ives, deep be­liev­ers in a small gov­ern­ment that should leave busi­ness and free en­ter­prise alone. There were many fea­tures of the Civil Rights Act that chal­lenged those ten­ets. They also knew that sup­port­ing civil rights was un­likely to provide much polit­ic­al be­ne­fit. But these men be­lieved that se­greg­a­tion was fun­da­ment­ally im­mor­al and needed to be un­done. Their ac­tions rep­res­ent one of the great pro­files in cour­age in Amer­ic­an his­tory.

In the list of an­niversar­ies above, one seems a bit out of place. Why did I in­clude James Byrd Jr.? Be­cause of Jasper, Texas, a small tim­ber town in East Texas with a long his­tory of bru­tal­ity and ra­cial dis­crim­in­a­tion that re­mains a touch­stone today — and that is try­ing, after Shelby County, to al­ter its bound­ar­ies to dis­ad­vant­age black voters.

Six years after James Byrd’s murder, two white teen­agers knocked over his head­stone and wrote ra­cial slurs on it. White-su­prem­acist groups ad­vert­ised on­line to sell dirt from his grave and links from the chain that dragged him to his de­cap­it­a­tion and death. The cemetery where he is bur­ied used to have an iron fence sep­ar­at­ing the black and white graves; it was re­moved after Byrd’s death, but there is still no ming­ling of races among the grave sites. A cemetery dir­ect­or ex­plained to New York Times re­port­er Manny Fernan­dez in June 2012: “Put a black here? No, no, we wouldn’t do that. That would be against our cus­tom, against our way of do­ing things.”

Jasper is fairly evenly di­vided between black and white pop­u­la­tions. It has five City Coun­cil mem­bers, four elec­ted in dis­tricts and one at large. In 2011, there were four Afric­an-Amer­ic­an mem­bers of the Jasper City Coun­cil, and one white mem­ber. They voted un­an­im­ously to se­lect Rod­ney Pear­son to be the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an po­lice chief, pre­sum­ably try­ing to al­le­vi­ate the ten­sions that had ex­is­ted between the largely white po­lice force and the black com­munity.

A timeline de­veloped by the Cam­paign Leg­al Cen­ter in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. [NOTE: I am on the board] tells the fol­low­ing story: The only ra­dio sta­tion in Jasper, owned by the may­or, Mike Lout, began a cam­paign of vili­fic­a­tion against Pear­son, on air and on its web­site. A group of white cit­izens call­ing them­selves the League of Con­cerned Cit­izens or­gan­ized to re­call only the black City Coun­cil mem­bers in or­der to fire Chief Pear­son. The ra­dio sta­tion pos­ted in­form­a­tion about the league and how cit­izens could sign re­call pe­ti­tions. Only whites signed the pe­ti­tions. Al­though the city pre­cincts in­cluded a polling place at a black church, the city in­stead used Jasper County polling places, none of which were loc­ated in the black com­munity. Lead­ing up to the re­call, KJAS broad­cast warn­ings that cit­izens with out­stand­ing fines or tick­ets could be sub­ject to ar­rest if they showed up to vote.

In Novem­ber 2011, two black City Coun­cil mem­bers were re­called. Im­me­di­ately after new, white mem­bers were in place, they fired Chief Pear­son. He sued the city, and in Feb­ru­ary of this year, the city paid him $800,000 to settle the claim. Two oth­er code­fend­ants paid him an ad­di­tion­al $31,000. Lout has denied that the fir­ing was re­lated to Pear­son’s race, and the city’s at­tor­neys said the set­tle­ment was not an ad­mis­sion of guilt.

In 1988, Jasper tried to an­nex sev­er­al pre­dom­in­antly white areas in­to the city. Un­der the Vot­ing Rights Act, the city needed pre­clear­ance to do so; the Justice De­part­ment denied the move be­cause it would di­lute black vot­ing strength. The city was forced to move from all at-large elec­tions to dis­trict ones as a pre­con­di­tion of get­ting the an­nex­a­tions ap­proved. Now, with no fear of pre­clear­ance, the City Coun­cil is mov­ing to an­nex three pre­dom­in­antly white neigh­bor­hoods, en­abling the city to re­draw the City Coun­cil lines to di­lute any po­ten­tial of elect­ing black mem­bers.

Of course, the fact is that Amer­ica is a rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent place than it was five dec­ades ago. For those of us old enough to have seen “whites only” wa­ter foun­tains, and who re­mem­ber poll taxes and ra­cially biased lit­er­acy tests, the changes have been truly re­volu­tion­ary. The rank ra­cism in Jasper, Texas, may be an an­om­aly, a throw­back to an earli­er, ugly time.

The ra­tionale Chief Justice Roberts used to blow up Sec­tion V of the Vot­ing Rights Act was that it had made a huge dif­fer­ence, and that the in­justices and evils of the past had been dra­mat­ic­ally ameli­or­ated. There was no longer any need for this pro­tec­tion. Of course, as soon as the de­cision came down, Texas and sev­er­al oth­er states that had been in­cluded in the VRA’s pro­tect­ive mantle moved to re­strict and sup­press vot­ing. Texas moved with­in two hours of the de­cision! The Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civil and Hu­man Rights has noted that since Shelby, 10 jur­is­dic­tions in sev­en states that would have been sub­ject to pre­clear­ance re­view have en­acted po­ten­tially dis­crim­in­at­ory changes in vot­ing rules.

There is a bi­par­tis­an ef­fort in Con­gress to pass a new Vot­ing Rights Act to re­spond to the Shelby County de­cision — a de­cision that over­turned the most re­cent re­vi­sion of the VRA by near-un­an­im­ous mar­gins in both houses of Con­gress. James Sensen­bren­ner of Wis­con­sin, a lead­er in that re­vi­sion, has been among the con­tem­por­ary crop of Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress who have sup­por­ted the ef­fort. Eric Can­tor, still the ma­jor­ity lead­er, has been open to it. We will soon see if Can­tor’s suc­cessor, Kev­in Mc­Carthy, picks up that bat­on. And we will see if Sen. Thad Co­chran, who owes his primary vic­tory in Mis­sis­sippi to Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters there, re­pays their sup­port by be­com­ing a spon­sor of the VRA re­vi­sion.

We are not ex­pect­ing much from the fi­nal months of the 113th Con­gress. But there is time for Can­tor, Mc­Carthy, and their col­leagues to rep­lic­ate what Mc­Cul­lough, Dirk­sen, and oth­ers did 50 years ago. Jasper, Texas; Au­gusta, Ga.; the state of North Car­o­lina; and many oth­er places demon­strate why — con­trary to Chief Justice Roberts’s opin­ion — that ac­tion is ne­ces­sary.

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