'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.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that things are not the same as they were in 1965 when the Act was originally passed: “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

A MAY 2013 analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that at least 82 bills to restrict voter access were introduced in 31 states in 2013. Many of those bills were introduced in former Section 4 preclearance states. Others represented an expanded wave of states declaring war on minority voters’ civil rights.

Critics of the ruling point out that given the current state of voter rights impingement, the court could have called for an expansion of the current list rather than tossing the list out altogether. But the court didn’t go that direction. Rather, its ruling rendered Section 5 of the 48-year-old legislation powerless to protect citizens from voter suppression and intimidation. The heart of the Voting Rights Act, the most successful civil rights tool in our nation’s history, has been effectively eviscerated.

Consider the 2014 election season. All of the former preclearance states are now moving to pass or implement new voting restrictions in ways that were previously prohibited under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The court’s ruling has in effect declared open season on voters of color and other minorities, the likes of which we have not seen since before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Thus, the old Jim Crow is in danger of becoming new again very soon.

These are fighting words!

And here’s the thing: The court’s ruling shifts the onus to craft a new preclearance formula squarely to Congress’ court. The House and Senate now hold the ball, and the timing could not be more critical. When it was up to the courts, there was nothing the average voter could do. Now we can act—and we need to act quickly: We must repent on behalf of a nation that refuses to see the current reality of racism in our land. Then we must go to our representatives and senators and tell them to save the Voting Rights Act now!

Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing at Sojourners.

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