By: Robert Scott
All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser.
South Carolinians as well as Southerners in general who are old enough to remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, remember it vividly. Those too young to remember it firsthand have more than likely been told about it by their parents and grandparents and studied the speech in school. It was an inspiring, moving speech on a day in which others, too, gave inspiring and moving speeches. One of those sharing the podium to speak that day was John Lewis, currently an elder statesman and still serving as a Congressman from Georgia. That he was able to be elected in the first place is a testament to the Voting Rights Act, itself inspired by the life and actions of Dr. King.
The Voting Rights Act recognized that some states, including our own South Carolina, had rigged the voting system in order systematically to deny their black citizens from gaining any political power, making it much more difficult for the average black citizen to register and to vote than the average white citizen. The Voting Rights Act instituted reforms such as outlawing poll taxes and literacy tests, and then went on to mandate that states with a history of racial discrimination in voting cannot change their voting or voter registration criteria without first having approval by the federal Department of Justice. Those reforms worked for the most part, resulting in majority black districts having the ability to elect black state and federal legislators, mayors, and county council members for the first time since Reconstruction. But the Voting Rights Act relied on data on state practices that dated from the administration of Lyndon Johnson, when it was first enacted. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Shelby County v. Holder that those criteria could no longer be used, asserting that federal oversight was no longer necessary. The Court’s decision did leave the Voting Rights Act itself intact, challenging Congress to update those criteria for the twenty-first Century.
It turns out that Congress – or at least, the House of Representatives – has now done that. Last week the House passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act, sponsored by Rep. John Lewis. And it was John Lewis who wielded the gavel for that vote, with 228 in favor and 187 opposed. All but one of those 228 were Democrats; all but one Republican opposed the measure. This act would again require Justice Department approval for certain states and territories proposing voting changes, updating the criteria used in determining those states. High on the list would be states like South Carolina that made changes within a year of the Shelby County decision, in the name of protecting against what was proven to be non-existent voting fraud. A likely consequence should this bill – numbered HR-4 – become law is that the participation and impact of minority voting would increase again, as it did fifty years ago when President Lyndon Johnson presided over the original Voting Rights Act. Unfortunately, it is likely that HR-4 will never be allowed a vote in the Senate; aides to President Trump have spoken against it as infringing on state sovereignty, the same argument raised fifty years ago. Unless, that is, not only Democratic Senators but also Republican Senators speak out in favor of this legislation. It is my hope that Sen. Lindsey Graham and especially Sen. Tim Scott do exactly that; both have favored Civil Rights legislation in the past, in the era before President Donald Trump.
Among the many John Lewis quotes during his time in government is this one: “Democracy is an act. It requires participation, organization, and dedication to the highest principles.” Let us all hope that such dedication is reflected again not only in the House of Representatives but also in the Senate, and they pass HR-4, John Lewis’ Voting Rights Advancement Act.