A rumor has been coursing through the Internet and black talk-radio shows: Congress will disenfranchise black Americans when it reconsiders the 1965 Voting Rights Act--which it must do by no later than 2007. The Congressional Black Caucus has fielded hundreds of anxious phone calls over the past two years; the Justice Department now posts a Web site rebuttal.
Such rumors illustrate that the "paranoid style" in American politics persists. Yet the Voting Rights Act is indeed under fire. In its inception, the act was structured to make sure black Americans could register and vote. But as techniques of: resistance in the white South became more baroque, so did the act, its interpretation, and its remedies. To some critics, this shift signaled regulatory overreach and racial preference. And in the past decade, the use of racially conscious legislative districting to increase black representation has further stimulated political and judicial backlash. Today, political momentum has shifted to critics of the act, and a major rollback, either legislatively or through the courts, could well occur.
Prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, barriers to black registration and voting were massive and crude. The entire white southern way of life was at stake. It was voting rights, more than anything else, that stimulated the 1964 Freedom Summer, voting rights that split the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and voting rights for which young activists gave their lives. In 1964, Mississippi had only About 7 percent of its black voting-age population registered to vote, with a voting-age population that was 36 percent black, Alabama, with a voting-age population that was 26 percent black, registered less than one eligible black voter in four, and Louisiana, with a voting-age population that was 28 percent black, registered less than one in three. In 1964, out of about 29,000 local, state, and national elected officials in the entire ex-Confederacy of 11 states, just 16 such officials were black, 3 of these state legislators and 13 local officials.
The 1965 act focussed entirely on the franchise. The act contained two sets of provisions, permanent sections that prohibited discrimination in voting, and temporary elements for enforcement, subject to renewal. The most important of these temporary features was Section 5 pre-clearance, which empowers the Justice Department to pre-clear any proposed changes in local registration and voting procedures. But there were also other temporary sections that barred specific impediments to voting and that provided for direct federal observation or examination of electoral processes as they occurred. This was the most basic takeover by Washington of local civic functions since Reconstruction; it was richly deserved and roundly resented.
No sooner was the law enacted than several southern state legislatures adopted programs of massive resistance to voting rights, much like the earlier massive resistance to school desegregation. States recast entire systems of representation in order to dilute black influence. They permitted or required county and municipal governments to create at-large voting for public offices, which submerged geographic black voting strength within a larger white majority. They changed balloting systems so that black voters were forced to vote for entire tickets, thus blocking any "single-shot" or "bullet-voting" by blacks for a liberal or minority candidate, which had been permitted previously in some jurisdictions. They pushed local governments to establish absolute majority vote requirements for winners, thus preventing plurality victory by a black candidate over a split field of whites. They converted elective offices to offices appointed by officials likely to have exclusively white support. Finally, states reapportioned legislative and congressional district lines to submerge black voting strength in white majorities. …