Selma and Shelby: The Fight for the New South
BY JESSE JACKSON
Progressive America Rising
Feb 10, 2015 – What time is it? It’s important to be clear. Is it mid-day and our labors still have hours to go? Or is it evening, our work done, and we can rest our weary heads? What time is it for the New South? Is it time to celebrate Selma, Alabama – and the triumph of the Voting Rights Act? Or is it time to mourn Shelby, Alabama – and the radical backlash against voting rights?
Fifty years after Selma’s Bloody Sunday that led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, many will gather to celebrate that victory. But we should understand that our work is not done. With the Shelby decision of the Supreme Court, the struggle for equal rights must go on.
Too often, we remember the triumph and ignore the backlash. In 1870, the 15th Amendment, codified in in the blood of the Civil War, was ratified to give African Americans the right to vote. It declared that the right to vote shall not be denied “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
But the triumph was immediately challenged by the backlash. Across the South, states controlled the structure and laws of voting. They immediately set up seemingly neutral barriers to voting – poll taxes, literacy tests and more – that were used to disenfranchise black voters. The reconstruction of the South was ended as the Supreme Court ratified legal apartheid, and segregation was brutally enforced.
It took nearly a century, a mighty civil rights movement, Bloody Sunday and other sacrifices, to pass the Voting Rights Act that gave the Justice Department the right to pre-screen any changes to voting laws in states with a history of discrimination, and ban those that would have a discriminatory effect, even if they looked neutral on their face.
Two years ago, however, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the five conservative judges on the Supreme Court effectively gutted preclearance laws, arguing in essence that there as a new South that had moved beyond racism.