There is a moment in the movie “Selma” when Martin Luther King, Jr. says that Montgomery (bus boycott), Birmingham (desegregation of stores, public facilities, and accommodations), and Selma (voting rights) were all parts of the same struggle. I say: the struggle is the work of the moral evolution of humankind, and Selma is a mile marker on a road that reaches back to the dawn of human history and reaches forward beyond our sight and beyond our imaginations.
When I saw the movie, I was struck by how much things have changed and by how much they have remained the same. The movie tells the story of King, the Southern Christian Leadership conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lyndon Johnson, and the march from Selma to Montgomery. The purpose of the march was to push for a voting rights bill to follow quickly after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Law, one of the most sweeping pieces of civil rights legislation in the nation’s history.
To fully appreciate this movie, it is important to remember just how very nearly completely African-Americans were disenfranchised in the Southern states. The movie does a good job of showing the humiliation of being asked to recite the preamble to the United States Constitution, or having to know how many state judges there were, or having to name them. Such so-called literacy tests were not the only impediments placed before African-Americans and their right to vote after reconstruction. There were poll taxes and the necessity of character references from a registered voter. A person’s name and address would be published in the newspaper, and if one’s employer or landlord objected to one’s attempt to register and vote, one could lose one’s job, house, or both.
White voters did not have to face such impediments because of a grandfather clause in the law that exempted anyone who was a descendant of a person who had the right to vote before 1866 from poll tax and property requirements. The 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended poll taxes or any other tax in federal elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended poll taxes for state and local elections, ended literacy tests, and required pre-clearance by the federal government for any changes in the voting laws in states with a history of laws that disenfranchised African-Americans.
However, today, we face the erosion of voting rights. In June 2013, in a 5-4 decision in “Shelby County v Holder”, the United States Supreme Court said that section 4b of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. This is the section that contains a formula that would trigger section 5, the pre-clearance section of the law. Since the Court deemed the formula outdated, there is nothing to trigger section 5. The logic was that since African-Americans were able to register and vote in sufficient numbers in Southern states and various other areas in the country that pre-clearance was no longer necessary. Congress could work on a new formula, but there is little expectation that a Republican controlled Congress will address the issue.