Supreme Court Rolls Back the Clock. But We Shall Overcome!

06/25/2013 07:00 pm ET | Updated Aug 25, 2013

Today the Supreme Court of the United States has rolled back the clock. In a majority decision striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the court attacked a mechanism that has safeguarded the enfranchisement of millions of Americans.

Understand, this decision comes after the outrageous machinations undertaken during the 2012 election to curtail voting; it comes after a spate of new laws designed to restricting voting in areas with high African-American populations; it comes after the entire nation witnessed the serpentine lines where minorities were forced to wait for hours for the right to cast their ballot.

Yet Chief Justice John Roberts, writing in the majority opinion, says: "Our country has changed in the last 50 years."

Of course our country has changed, and it has changed for the better. Roberts and the court, however, confuse progress with perfection. Even the safest cities in America keep a police department, understanding that the presence of a watchful eye deters wrongful behavior. It surpasses logic to determine that improvement should signal the end of meaningful monitoring.

Passed at the height of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a historic piece of legislation meant to strengthen the 15th Amendment. Specifically, it was meant to protect African-Americans' voting privileges after decades of disenfranchisement. And that's exactly what it did.

Even after the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870, literacy tests for blacks, along with other restrictions, remained rampant in the South, effectively blocking voter participation by African Americans. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act maintained that 16 states -- mostly in the South -- with a history of discrimination must seek approval from the federal government before changing any election laws or procedures. That will no longer be the case.

Roberts is correct in asserting that racist public policy is not as blatant today as it was in 1965, but he and other justices in the majority opinion are ignoring the problems that do exist. Witness Texas' disingenuous drawing of maps and literally dozens of other efforts to reduce the minority vote. In fact, Texas' attorney general declared today that the state's voter ID law will now take effect as well as the redistricting maps passed by the Legislature. We shall see how minority voters fare in that climate.

As Rep. John Lewis, a soldier for civil rights so eloquently wrote in the Washington Post, in the course of the 21 hearings it held on the Voting Rights Act in 2006, Congress found that although there has been improvement, "places with a legacy of long-standing, entrenched and state-sponsored voting discrimination still have the most persistent, flagrant, contemporary records of discrimination in this country."

Those 16 jurisdictions affected by Section 4 represent only 25 percent of the nation's population, yet they still are responsible for more than 80 percent of voting discrimination lawsuits. For decades, expanding voter access, increasing opportunities for registration and participation in the nation's democracy have been the single focus of the states and the federal government and the courts.

Section 4 was challenged in this case by the local government of Shelby County, Alabama -- one of the 16 states.

Those seeking to overthrow the voting rights act say their states have overcome racism and shouldn't be handcuffed to the past by Congress. I would agree if it were that simple. As I have said before, the era of segregationist governors standing publicly against integration may be long past. But as recent court cases show, less violent and more subtle efforts to thwart the will of voters are alive and well today and constitute a fundamental, growing threat to democracy.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called the majority decision "egregious" and recalled the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, "'The arc of the moral universe is long, but 'it bends toward justice,' if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion."

She correctly noted, "that commitment has been disserved by today's decision."

It is also correct, however, that justice has a gravitational pull. This is a setback, and a serious one, but it is the last gasp of those who would see our country return to a past most of us have worked to overcome. Ultimately, however, we shall overcome.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is Chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.