THE BLOG

Can a Civil Rights/Feminist Presidential Union Put John Edwards on the Supreme Court?

05/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the end game for the Democratic nomination takes shape, the historic union of the feminist and civil rights movements has never been more in evidence. Nor has the next upcoming appointment to the US Supreme Court ever been more pivotal.

It's no accident that for the first time in history, we have both an African-American and a female contender. No matter what one may think of the two individuals -- their stands on the issues, their personalities, their "baggage" -- the margins between them are very small. They are each a product of historic movements that have come to this moment precisely at the same time, and in partnership. It will be difficult for the Democrats to win without the full, enthusiastic support of both of them.

Part of this confluence can be told through parallel voting rights histories. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, allegedly guaranteed the right to vote "regardless of race." The 19th Amendment, guaranteeing the ballot for women, came a full fifty years later.

Does that say this country is more sexist than racist?

Well, yes and no. Women had the right to vote in many early states. The last to nix it was New Jersey, in 1808. That was also the year the U.S. Constitution banned the importation of slaves.

Black men could vote in many northern states right from the time of independence. That right was never formally rescinded.

But even in those northern states, African-American voter registration and the counting of their votes have been severely compromised -- especially in urban areas in the 20th century, and decisively in the stolen elections of 2000 and 2004.

Meanwhile, the poll tax, which was used to keep blacks from voting in the south, was not banned by a Constitutional Amendment until 1964.

From the end of the Civil War at least until the 1970s, the Democratic Party and its terrorist wing, the Ku Klux Klan, effectively kept both black men and black women from voting in the south. More than 3,000 known lynchings helped disembowel the African-American franchise.

And the poll tax has now been effectively re-instated in the form of the voter ID requirement, just certified by the US Supreme Court, set to spread from Indiana through the state whose legislatures are controlled by the GOP.

For women overall, the vote was first re-instated in Wyoming in 1869, and in some other states with strong populist and socialist movements through 1920.

But many early feminists actually got their start as abolitionists. While campaigning to end slavery, they were often assaulted by men who couldn't bear to hear a female speak in public. In one infamous incident, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott sailed all the way to London for an international conference against slavery, only to be barred at the door by the men.

Furious, they convened the first conference for women's rights in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. There they declared that "all men and women are created equal." Their most prominent male speaker was Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist ex-slave who helped equate the twin crusades of race and gender.

The partnership -- and frequent tension -- between the two movements has been essential ever since. In every major grassroots movement that has defined this country, it's impossible to separate them.

In 2008, if Barack Obama is in fact the presidential nominee, he and Hillary Clinton must come to some kind of agreement about the VP slot -- and much more. And the women of this country, who are the majority of voters, and without whose overwhelming support the Democrats can't win, must be as happy with the outcome as those who have identified primarily with the civil rights movement.

The word is consensus. It is hard to achieve. But then it's even harder to beat.

Which brings us to John Edwards. For many on the left, he was the top choice for the presidency, and would seem a likely VP candidate. He might also make a great attorney-general.

But it's no mystery the future of what's left of our democracy hangs on the thin thread of the highly unreliable fifth vote of Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. As we just saw in this horrendous voter ID decision, that thread can and has snapped with terrifying impact.

Given the age of the other Justices, the next president will fill at least one, and possibly two or three seats on the Court. If just the first one is filled by John McCain, the litany of basic rights and freedoms that we'll lose is almost beyond comprehension. Everything Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes and the extremist corporate/religious right have done to destroy the essence of American democracy will be set in stone for the rest of our lifetimes, and those of our children. Countless victories won with the blood, sweat and tears of the feminist, civil rights, labor, environmental, peace, social justice, good government and any other "smalld movement" you can think of will be as good as gone.

John Edwards might bring unique power, clarity and charisma to a Court in desperate need of someone to balance the hideous Antonin Scalia, perhaps the single most destructive judge in all US history.

But if nothing else, the stakes at the Court should remind us all why we need a unified path to victory in the fall.

Amidst the tumult and the turmoil, let us all pray -- and work -- for the better natures of our souls.

HARVEY WASSERMAN'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES is at www.harveywasserman.com, as is his SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030.