'Fighting Words' from the Supreme Court

President Johnson hands Martin Luther King Jr. one of the pens used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

BACK IN THE day, when Stevie Wonder was Wishing “those days could come back once more,” my 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old friends and I had no idea what the heck he was talking about, but we loved the groove and would blast Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life album from our front steps as we played in front of my house in our West Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Sometimes the boys would coast down the street on handmade skateboards, literally made of old skates—the kind with wheels you strapped to your shoes—nailed to short wooden planks. Sometimes the girls and boys would race each other down a steep street, flying at lightning speed on bikes and boards, to see who could make it first to the candy shop at the bottom of the hill. And sometimes, in all the play, a verbal sparring match would break out:         

“You so big,” one friend would say, “it take two showerheads to clean yo big butt in the morning!” Then the 7-year-old sparring partner would come back: “Oh, yeah?! You so ugly, yo mama say ‘What dat?’ when she give birth to you!”

It would keep going and we’d all laugh out loud until someone got inappropriate. Usually inappropriateness began with three words: “Yo mama so ...” We all knew to never bring someone’s mother into the sparring match unless you wanted to fight for real. Those were fighting words.

This summer the Supreme Court got inappropriate. They spewed fighting words on the playground that is our national public square.

In the case of Shelby County, Alabama, vs. Holder, the court issued a 5-to-4 ruling that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. Section 4 is the section that identifies the states which, because of historical racialized bias, must obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before making any changes to their voting laws or districts.

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