Julian Bond, former chairman of the NAACP and civil rights leader, died Saturday at age 75. In May, Bond appeared at a Moment event held in partnership with the Newseum commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Read the symposium based on that event here, and listen to Bond’s remarks below.
Now, most of you here will remember a certain well-known political figure declaring a few years ago, “There’s a right-wing conspiracy.” Well, when you look at what is happening to voting rights, it’s easy to conclude that Hillary Clinton was right. There is a right-wing conspiracy, and it extends all the way to the Supreme Court. Now, some of you will also remember what we used to say in the 1960s: Even paranoids have enemies.
But you need not believe in conspiracies or be paranoid to understand that the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court is an outrage and a tragedy, and that its restoration ought to be Congress’ highest priority. But if a doctor told Congress today that they had kidney stones, they wouldn’t pass ‘em. Now, to understand what’s at stake, let me quote from a great man.
He said, “Strange things have happened of late and are still happening. When the moral sentiment of a nation begins to decline and the wheel of progress to roll backward, there’s no telling how low the one will fall and the other may stop. The downward tendency already manifest has swept away some of the most important safeguards. The Supreme Court has surrendered, state sovereignty is restored. It has destroyed the Civil Rights bill and converted the Republican party into a party of money rather than a party of morals. A party of things rather than a party of humanity and justice. We may well ask, ‘What next?'”
That was Frederick Douglass speaking in 1894, just as the era of Jim Crow began, with states erecting barriers to voting, including poll taxes and literacy tests. What came next was Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, constitutionalizing separate but equal. This was quickly followed by two Supreme Court rulings that disenfranchised black voters. The South became, as Louis Menand wrote, “a one-party bloc, standing for one principle above all, expressed by the logo of the Alabama Democratic party: a white rooster with her banner above it reading ‘White Supremacy.’ Voting rights went to the very heart of the Southern ‘way of life.’”
By the time we got to the 1960s, the reason, Menand stresses, Southern officials resisted voter registration with such viciousness was that the region’s whole political system was predicated on the restriction of the franchise. So we know what we gained with the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and what we’ve lost through its gutting by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder. As Emily Bazelon writes, “Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion on the Voting Rights Act takes away one of the most important tools for ensuring minority rights that Congress has ever created.”
This is the genius of John Roberts. He makes big steps to the right look like small ones. In fact, his memo trail reveals that he has been trying to curtail the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act for 30 years, dating back to his days as a lawyer in President Reagan’s Justice Department. During the Reagan years, he was one of the true believers working in the White House, who wrote memos containing racist and sexist jokes. A brand-new study by longtime voting rights expert Morgan Kousser has revealed the Chief Justice’s factual assertions explaining why Congress’s formula was being struck down were incorrect, and that the Supreme Court manipulated the evidence of discrimination, making it appear that the act’s preclearance requirements were no longer necessary.
Call it a conspiracy, call it corruption, or just call it, as Bazelon does, conservative stealth. As the court surely anticipated, Congress has not managed to restore the Voting Rights Act. The first attempt to do so was so weak, it gathered little support at the grassroots level. A new and much-improved version is about to be introduced. It will only pass if the people give Congress no choice, a choice in which all of us must engage.
Last month, I sat in Ford’s Theatre as we observed the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Two days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered, effectively ended the Civil War, Lincoln gave what would be his last public speech. For the first time in a public setting, President Lincoln called for black suffrage. John Wilkes Booth was in the audience and vowed, “That is the last speech he will ever make.” A century and a half later, black suffrage in the United States is still not secure. Until it is, neither is our country’s promise.