Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Time for Greatness

In The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s (Penguin, 2008), the authors - Colby College Professors G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot - called the 1960s "years in which the processes of democratic politics, were better managed, more creative, bolder and more responsive than they have been at any time since." The correctness of that assertion was dramatically on display last night in a powerful PBS documentary, JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness, which retold the story of that "Liberal Hour," focusing on what was perhaps its greatest accomplishment - the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment had guaranteed to all American citizens - in particular and specifically former slaves - the right to vote. As importantly, it had declared that "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." It was the crown jewel, so to speak of the Reconstruction amendments. And, if the national government had actually implemented it - enforcing it "by appropriate legislation - the whole subsequent history of the United States would have been so different. As it was, it took another century of suffering before the intended beneficiaries of the 15th Amendment definitively secured the right to vote, when Congress finally did pass "appropriate legislation" in the form of the 1965 Voting Rights Act - 50 years ago this week.

The PBS documentary does a great job of situating the struggle to pass the two bills and Johnson's indispensable and heroic role in the process - the successful breaking of the filibuster and bi-partisan passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 exactly one year after President Kennedy had first sent it to Congress and then the passage of the even more decisive voting Rights Act a year later. It is a great story which needs to be retold to later generations that don't remember either what a total transformation of American society those two laws facilitated or what a different political culture we had then, which (for all its faults, which were real) was one in which genuinely bi-partisan legislation in the public interest was both possible and expected.

Sadly, retelling that story is especially important right now - 50 years after the Voting Rights Act - because of the active efforts to undermine this great accomplishment and once again restrict American citizens right to vote. In anticipation of this week's 50th anniversary, last Sunday's New York Times Magazine featured a truly must-read article, "A Dream Undone: Inside the 50-year campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act." (The article can be read at: 

In just the past few years, various state legislatures have enacted restrictions on voting - voter ID laws, reducing opportunities for early voting, eliminating same-day registration, etc. In many cases, such regressive actions would have been difficult or even impossible to adopt. But then our ideological Supreme Court in one of it more infamous decisions - Shelby County v. Holder (2013) - saw fit to undermine a critical component of the 1965 Voting Rights Act,  the section which required states with a history of disenfranchising Black voters to clear any future voting law changes with Washington. The Court did so despite the law's overwhelming re-authorization by Congress (faithfully fulfilling its 15th-Amendment mandate) in 2006. In her stinging dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited Congressional findings at the time of the reauthorization of "calculated decisions to keep minority voters from fully participating in the political process," and denounced the "hubris" in the Court's "demolition of the V.R.A."

So here we are, on the eve of tomorrow's 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, saddled with the wreckage wrought once again by the Supreme Court and left to contemplate what was once possible when, to quote again, "the processes of democratic politics, were better managed, more creative, bolder and more responsive than they have been at any time since."

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