Voting Rights, Found and Lost?


FREEDOM SUMMER," 1964. In one of the early long, hot summers of Negro discontent, a coalition of civil rights groups mounted a spirited campaign to achieve and implement racial justice in Mississippi, the nation's most rigidly segregated state.

June 21, the first day. Three activists, James Chancy, 21. Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, a Black and two whites, left their homes in the North to journey into America's belly. Full of hope, not sure they would come out alive, they wanted to change the world. But there was no place for their dreams underneath the sweltering Southern sun. Trapped amidst a fusion of heat and hate, their visions collided with the granite realities of the "Southern Way of Life."

That same day, their station wagon was found abandoned and gutted. Weeks later, the police received a tip a rushed to the scene. Three bullet-ridden bodies were recovered. The activists became martyrs.

The nation's pulse quickened, as "Freedom Summer" took on a national character. Demonstrations, legislation, burnings, beatings, jailings--it seemed to be everywhere, tearing at the fabric of American society. It was Harlem, then Rochester. Its flesh was the flesh of Jimmie Lee Jackson. Lemuel A. Penn. Freddie Lee Thomas, James Reeb and other fallen civil rights workers. Its soul was the soul of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County. Georgia, one of many Negro churches burned or bombed to the ground. Its mentality was that of sheriff James Clark and other faceless, mindless segregationist law enforcers singlehandedly determined to "keep nigger in his place." And its heart was Selma, Alabama--25,000 proud people marching, hands clasped, and with full throats, chanting old Negro spirituals, on their way to the state capital in a voter registration drive.

These memories of the American soul laid bare came back three weeks ago when a House judiciary subcommittee opened debate on extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A key provision of the law will expire in August 1982 and many of the nation's minority leaders were on hand to plead for at least a ten-year extension.


As the "Freedom Summer's" most dramatic result, the Voting Rights Act effectively curbed voting-rights abuses in the South. It outlawed literacy tests, poll taxes and provided for federal registers to replace local registration officials. The backbone of the law--the section due to expire next year--forbids nine states with a history of voting rights abuses and areas of 13 other states from changing their election laws without prior approval from the Justice Department or a federal court. The snail's pace with which the legal system operated made it necessary to shift the power to act in voter-discrimination cases out of the courts into the hands of the executive. President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Johnson knew the futility of giving the courts responsibility for dealing with voting rights suits and the rage he would inspire if he empowered himself to act in such cases. Yet, he also sensed the moment and knew that something had to be done. In those days, before Vietnam became Vietnam and denied him the greatness he wanted so badly, he seemed to sense the depth and tenor of Negro despair. Firmly rooted in Southern soil, himself, he knew of the virtual disenfranchisment of Southern Negroes. It tormented him but also drove him on. This is why he seized the moment that March day in 1965 and stood before Congress trying to put into words generations of Negro anguish in this country--becoming the first U.S. president in 19 years to assemble Congress to ask for special legislation.

NOW, 16 YEARS LATER, the act which has achieved significant results is being threatened. Extension of the law has already received criticism in the House and is expected to receive considerable opposition in the more conservative Senate. Furthermore, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-III) has introduced a compromise which may be garnering increasing support. The measure would restrict Federal judges to requiring advance approval in election law changes where a pattern of voter rights abuses exists.

But then, compromise has often been the rule for Black people in this country. Realizing the necessity of reaching a middle ground in all legislative bodies, it is still difficult to overlook the historical example. The act should be extended because court action has proven ineffective in the past. And with the conservative trend in this country, no one will be able to convince minorities that it suddenly will change now. In fact, allowing the act to expire would probably be taken as a sign of government apathy towards minority interests.

For 95 years the Fifteenth Amendment's great promise of the vote for all on an equal basis was betrayed by a misplaced trust in the effectiveness of court action. Under a 1957 law, revised in 1960 and again in 1964, of 71 voter-discrimination suits filed, fewer than a dozen were handed with enough force to influence current election procedures. Justice Department lawyers spent an average 28 months working on each suit filed and rarely met with success. In one case six lawyers examined 36,000 pages of voter applications subpoened 185 witnesses and waited a full year before the case went to court.

The law now pending Congressional action remedied the ineffectiveness of previous measures, by putting the muscle of the executive behind it, results have been good. Since its advent the number of Black registered voters in the South has increased by 1.2 million. The historical lesson shows us clearly what can happen to a people's rights if not stringently protected. The right to vote is a form of political expression and is the most fundamental right of citizenship. The government has a duty to guarantee that right to every citizen. There is no room for middle ground.

The political significance of the act should also be taken into account. Today minorities see many of the gains made as a result of the 1960s protests being eroded. The Ku Klux Klan's membership is growing and affirmative action programs are being substantially questioned. Social and economic programs which have traditionally benefitted Blacks are being severely cut back. And recent incidences of violence directed at Blacks have also added to their worries. There is a real and palpable fear in minority communities that the government is indifferent to their needs.

Thus, the symbolic significance of the act should not be lost on anyone. The nation's leaders have been presented with an opportune time to express their attitudes towards minority concerns. To be sure, Blacks and minorities will be watching closely for a confirmation of their worst fears. Perhaps Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., president of the National Urban League, expressed this sentiment best, when he said before the subcommittee, "I do not trust white people in the South with my rights. I did not before the act. I do not 17 years later." A responsible government would take this opportunity to send a message of support to minorities and lay their worst fears to rest. If the white man ever has a burden, it is upon him now.