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Voting Rights Act, at 40, faces uncertain future
Toledo Blade


August 26, 2005

When his mother and grandmother went to vote for the first time after the national Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, Johnny Mickler said it reminded him of going to church.

For more than a century, blacks in Greenville, S.C., as well as all over the South, were discouraged and threatened from even registering to take part in the political process.

"I remembered they dressed up in their Sunday best," Mickler, now president of the Greater Toledo Urban League, said. "We knew when they dressed up like that it was something important. They wanted to show us kids how important this was."

Mickler said that image drove home not only the importance of voting but the sacrifices others made for blacks to be given that right.

The Voting Rights Act, which celebrated its 40th anniversary during August, proved to be the final blow to Jim Crow laws in the South and ushered in a renaissance of African-American political power across the country.

"It's obvious that voting rights are the most visible experience of American democracy," said Devin Fergus, assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "With the rise of black voting power, you had an increase in black elected officials."

According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, the number of black elected officials has increased six-fold since 1970 to 9,040 in 2000.

Blacks and other minority groups have used the voting rights law to gain representation in county, state, and federal government.

The law, which many consider more important at that time than the Civil Rights Act passed a year earlier, will be up for renewal by Congress next year.

Many blacks fear that the Republican-controlled Congress will attempt to water down the law, if it extends the measure at all.

Earlier this month, the Rev. Jesse Jackson joined with new NAACP President Bruce Gordon and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., in a large march in Atlanta calling for renewal of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5 of the act has received the most scrutiny by its opponents, which requires many southern states with a history of discrimination to earn clearance from the Justice Department of any voting-rule changes.

It also mandates that states draw minority-controlled districts if minority voters dominate certain residential areas.

That provision was put in place to prevent governments from dividing up minority populations for the purpose of diluting their voting power, experts said.

Another provision of the act being reviewed allows for voting material to be printed in Spanish and other languages to assist immigrants in the voting process.

Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, said in a column for the National Review Online this month that among several problems with the act is that it encourages racial gerrymandering and leads to segregation.

While acknowledging the act was one of the most successful pieces of legislation of its time, other civil rights experts contend its benefits were achieved in the first five years and that voting hurdles for blacks and other minorities no longer exist.

However, Fergus said a recent Georgia law that requires voters to obtain one of six forms of photo identification before voting is one of the most restrictive in the country.

Georgia officials said the law was established in an effort to eliminate vote fraud, but black leaders said it's reminiscent of Jim Crow rules meant to keep blacks - especially poor, rural blacks - away from the polls.

Paul Griffin, director of African and African-American Studies at Wright State University near Dayton, said Congress should use this review opportunity to make the provisions in the Voting Rights Act permanent.

"Why is that a cross blacks must still bear?" Griffin said. "It's our right, so why do we have to revisit it at all?"

Abdul Alkalimat, director of the University of Toledo's Africana studies program, said amendments to the U.S. Constitution guarantee African-Americans the right to vote, but he contends states have found ways to circumvent the law.

"(The Voting Rights Act) is necessary and it's unnecessary," Alkalimat said.

"If the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments (to the Constitution) would have been interpreted correctly in earlier Supreme Court decisions, there was no need for (the Voting Rights Act)," he said.

Many of those in power, particularly in the South, did little to enforce those amendments - which outlawed slavery and granted blacks all rights under the Constitution and the right to vote.

Alkalimat said new laws had to be passed to reinforce those amendments.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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