With freedom rides and ‘states’ rights’ refrains, old times in America are not forgotten

Current debate over voting rights elicits sense of déjà vu

Bishop William J. Barber II speaks Wednesday at a rally outside the Supreme Court. The current fight over voting rights reminds us of the civil rights era in more ways than one, Curtis writes.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Bishop William J. Barber II speaks Wednesday at a rally outside the Supreme Court. The current fight over voting rights reminds us of the civil rights era in more ways than one, Curtis writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 24, 2021 at 6:00am

Buses of civil rights demonstrators are on the road carrying Americans who want to send a message to their political leaders. They want to add their voices to the Washington debates over stalled infrastructure legislation, voting rights protections and every important discussion that could affect participation in democracy.

Shades of the 1960s activism that spurred history-making laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, all steps toward a more inclusive country — the goal, unfulfilled, in the idealistic words of America’s founding documents.

An unfortunate throwback also front and center is the opposition, exalting the primacy of “states’ rights.” It is not showing out in the violence that met the earlier bus occupants at stop after stop. But that familiar phrase or the sentiment animating it, the condemnation of interference from the big, bad federal government so dear to the heart of obstructionists back then, was the refrain from Republican senators who on Tuesday voted down any attempt to discuss proposed legislation that would protect the fundamental franchise for all.

The For the People Act would accomplish what the 1965 law intended after brutal enforcement of post-Reconstruction codes and decades of Jim Crow state laws had denied African American citizens access to the ballot. For them, the federal government was not the enemy; it was a lifeline for Americans who wanted equality.

‘Indefensible position’

It wasn’t that long ago. As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer summed it up: “The Republican leader uses the language and the logic of the Southern senators in the ’60s, who defended states’ rights. And it is an indefensible position.”

Let’s see. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the man in question, said Tuesday, “Look, what this is really about is an effort for the federal government to take over the way we conduct elections in this country.”

Back in May 1965, Sen. Lister Hill, D-Ala., arguing against the Voting Rights Act, said, “There is yet time to halt this head-on rush to the destruction of the basic rights of the individual states and the liberties of the American people to satisfy the demands, the clamor, and the expediency of the day.”

One thing has changed. Those civil rights laws, signed by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, triggered the GOP’s opportunistic Southern strategy and a transformation of the region from blue to red.

McConnell called the new legislation “a solution in search of a problem.” Actually, his description fits the hundreds of laws proposed in dozens of states that would restrict the right to vote and then control who gets to decide which votes count.

After a 2020 election that elections officials of both parties judged fair, safe and secure, it was Donald Trump who fueled the need for “election integrity” by raising false claims of fraud. Trump was aided by Republican enablers in Washington and state legislatures that gave his conspiracies oxygen.

Now, the mayhem of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection to overturn an election has moved to many states, and Republicans in the Senate this week refused to even discuss an attack on rights that the blood and sacrifice of men, women and children earned. One of the bills to fix the gaps left when the Supreme Court in 2013 invalidated key portions of the Voting Rights Act is named for John Lewis, who was himself a member of Congress until his death last year. The For the People Act was written in large part by Lewis. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

Most Republicans voted to declare Juneteenth, June 19, a federal holiday, providing cynical cover for accusations of racism while at the same time consigning injustice to the long-ago past.

A “power grab,” McConnell called the For the People Act, which would expand voting and registration options and establish independent redistricting commissions, among other provisions. But those words more accurately describe the new state restrictions that, for example, close polls an hour earlier in Iowa, cut the number of drop boxes in Democratic-leaning counties in Georgia and end a long-standing practice of same-day registration in Montana. The worst, of course, are the provisions that allow partisan legislatures and election officials to overturn elections on unverified hints of voter fraud, an extra embedded in Texas’ proposed law.

Showing their colors

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III offered a compromise bill that included most of the things Republicans have claimed they’ve wanted, including voter ID. He got no takers, highlighting the hypocrisy of Republican intransigence.

If I were Manchin, I would be pretty mad at my Senate colleague, Missouri Republican Roy Blunt — he gave the credit for all Manchin’s hard work to Stacey Abrams, who endorsed the compromise. Of course, everyone knows the reason for Blunt’s dismissive attitude. It’s a political strategy, partly because of what Abrams has done to register voters and help elect Democrats statewide in Georgia and a lot of it because of who she is, a Black woman who is smart, resilient and didn’t slink away after she lost a gubernatorial race.

Maybe that’s a bit of progress though. In the 1960s, Southern politicians insisted that Black Southerners were happy with their racist treatment, even as they marched for the right to vote. In 2021, at least they are giving the credit to a Black woman instead of faceless “Communists” pulling the strings.

It’s ironic that so many Republicans are fighting to keep schools from teaching about how race and racism have affected our country’s laws when it’s obvious they themselves have much to learn, starting with a lesson on the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which says that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and includes a very important section on enforcement that reads, “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

It was needed in 1965 and every time that Congress, once routinely, reauthorized it. It’s needed now. As Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat whose existence as a senator Hill and other lawmakers of his day could hardly have imagined and certainly feared, said, “It is a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in the society.”

Another lesson is not happening in the classroom. It’s coming in real time from the Arizonans who boarded a bus in Phoenix, with stops in Tulsa, Okla., Little Rock, Ark., Greensboro, N.C., and other civil rights landmarks on the way to Washington; from Black Voters Matter’s Freedom Ride for Voting Rights; and from Wednesday’s “Moral March on Manchin and McConnell,” planned by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, that culminated in front of the Supreme Court, where people of all backgrounds from all over listened to a repeated challenge from the Bishop William J. Barber II: “Which side are you on?”

Just like the rights activists from America’s past, there were no signs of surrender.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.