Stephen Gottlieb: Schwerner, Chaney, Goodman and the Voting Rights Act
Yesterday, President Obama posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, a Black Mississippian and two white New Yorkers, murdered fifty years ago, working to register Blacks to vote in Mississippi. They were among many who lost their lives in that struggle.
Schwerner's widow, Rita Schwerner Bender, said the best way to honor her husband "and all the others killed or injured in the struggle for voting rights and the dismantling of Jim Crow would be the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act and its aggressive enforcement."
At the last hearings on renewal of the Voting Rights Act, witnesses made clear that efforts to rig the process against African-Americans continue unabated, moving polling places, changing district lines, reorganizing forms of government so that Blacks could still be excluded. Because the Voting Rights Act gave the United States Attorney General power to reject changes, those efforts had not succeeded.
In Shelby County v. Holder, Justice Roberts used the Act’s success against it, saying it is no longer needed because the statistics are better. Pamela Karlan, a highly-respected Stanford Law professor, told Congress:
“ if you have a really bad infection and … the doctor … give[s] you a bunch of pills, and … tell[s] you, ‘Do not stop taking these pills the minute you feel better. Go through the entire course of treatment because, otherwise, the disease will come back in a more resistant form.’ … [T]he Voting Rights Act is strong medicine, but it needs to finish its course of treatment, and that has not yet happened … [as] you have heard from other witnesses. ”
Those other witnesses made clear that the efforts to undo electoral integration continues almost unabated and would come roaring back if allowed. The Court stripped the pre-clearance provisions from the Voting Rights Act and the disease came roaring back just as Prof. Karlan predicted.
Should we care about African-American voters? Absolutely. Morally, they’re people like us. Democracy has no right over peoples denied the vote.
And for our own self-interest. Martin Niemöller said of the Nazis:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues explain, the power of dictators is built on shrinking the number of people to whom he or she owes her power, and then rewarding those folk big-time.
You have no stake in southern white racist politics. If you’re Democrats, you have no stake in Republicans winning by excluding African-Americans. In Congress and state legislatures, people of good will are allies. We cannot win on the nonracial issues important to us if we allow our African-American fellow citizens to be excluded from the vote.
Those who wrote and ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments understood that having won the Civil War they could lose the peace if African-Americans could be prevented from voting in the former Confederate states. We all have a stake in a society where all are represented because that is our chance for a just society in which government is not just of, by and for people who think they're better than the rest of us.
 Jerry Mitchell, Presidential medal to honor 3 slain civil rights workers, JOURNEY TO JUSTICE, The Clarion-Ledger, November 18, 2014, available at http://www.clarionledger.com/story/journeytojustice/2014/11/10/presidential-medal-of-freeom-given-three-slain-civil-rights-workers/18826791/, visited Nov. 24, 2014.
 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013)
 Statement Of Pamela S. Karlan, in The Continuing Need For Section 5 Pre-Clearance, Hearing Before The Committee On The Judiciary, United States Senate, One Hundred Ninth Congress, Second Session, May 16, 2006, Serial No. J–109–77, S. Hrg. 109–569, at 5.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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