For most people, the Civil Rights Movement recalls a black-and-white photo in a history book. For Floyd McKissick Jr., it’s his childhood living room.
That’s where McKissick’s late father, an iconic local civil rights leader who is one of the first black graduates of UNC’s School of Law, orchestrated a series of demonstrations and legal defenses in racially divided Durham at the peak of the national movement.
McKissick, now a Democratic state senator, shudders to think what his father would say if he were alive today, just days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The seminal federal legislation was crafted decades ago to block widespread racial discrimination at the polls.
“He would be gravely disappointed in the direction of the Supreme Court, which was the champion of the protection of minority interests for many decades,” McKissick says.
Like McKissick, civil rights advocates across the Triangle are bemoaning the Supreme Court’s rebuke of the Voting Rights Act, which passed with a 5-4 majority of the court’s conservative justices. The ruling strikes down the federal formula used to determine which states and jurisdictions are required to attain U.S. Department of Justice approval before adopting new voting districts or ID requirements.
The court’s decision was overshadowed a day later by the justices’ vote on gay marriage, but as local activists note, North Carolina had more at stake in the Voting Rights Act.
“We lost that one,” says longtime Durham City Councilman Howard Clement III. “And I regret it very much.”
Clement, a retired attorney and civil rights advocate who attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 march on Washington, D.C., calls McKissick’s father his “role model.”
“It was because of the people who went before me and made it possible for me to be where I am,” Clement says. “They would be saddened today to see what I’ve seen.”
Sixteen U.S. states, including North Carolina, were covered in their entirety or in certain jurisdictions by the act’s preclearance formula, which weighted registration data and turnout in regions with a history of voter discrimination.
In North Carolina, 40 of the state’s 100 countiesmostly rural counties such as Lee and Granvillewere covered. Durham, Wake and Orange counties were excluded. (See “Some facts about the VRA in N.C.“)
Legal experts say the court’s decision leaves the act in place but effectively strips its enforcement powers, handing the development of a new coverage formula to a bitterly divided Congress.
“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. in the majority’s decision. “Voter registration and turnout data in the covered states have risen dramatically in the years since.”
Roberts’ decision echoed the arguments of numerous conservatives, who pointed out the act’s preclearance formula relied in part on data from the 1964, 1968 and 1972 elections. However, the ruling, critics say, doesn’t account for more recent voting rights issues, such as redistricting and at-large elections, which can weaken minority sway.
In the wake of the decision, GOP leaders across the country, including in North Carolina, indicated they will renew their push for broad election reforms such as stringent voter ID laws.
Last week, Sen. Tom Apodaca, a powerful Henderson County Republican who sits on the General Assembly’s joint elections oversight committee, promised sweeping voting legislation in the coming days, including voter ID reforms that would otherwise require federal preclearance.
Likewise, advocates worry that county and state leaders will now have the leverage to pursue redistricting intended to pack minority voters into districts, marginalizing their voting power.
“It’s almost as if a dam has been removed,” says Guy-Uriel Charles, a Duke University law professor and the founder of the school’s Center on Law, Race and Politics.
With federal screening stripped, Charles says the burden to prove discriminatory tactics now rests with the public and voting rights advocates. “My guess is that the Republicans in North Carolina would not have taken on sweeping voting reforms were it not for this court’s decision,” he says.
The Supreme Court’s ruling comes despite a widely-cited legal brief by election research scholarsincluding UNC-Chapel Hill associate law professor Kareem Craytonthat urged the court to uphold the act.
According to the brief, persistently discriminatory attitudes, racially polarized voting, voting disqualification efforts and socioeconomic data in the covered regions justify the act’s preclearance requirement.
In a statement last week, N.C. NAACP leaders called the court’s decision a “direct attack” on minority voters. Group leaders say high turnout among black voters in recent years, spurred by the candidacy of Barack Obama, is evidence that the Voting Rights Act is working, not that institutionalized racism has been eradicated.
“This is wrong,” the statement read. “It is tantamount to them saying the patient may be sick, may have cancer and we are going to take the X-ray machine to find it and the medicine to treat it.”
Since the ruling, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Department of Justice will “carefully monitor” any future voting rights impediments. Triangle advocates say they will do the same.
“We will just have to be actively involved at the local levels,” says Clement. “We’re going to have to be very sensitive and more aware of what’s going on.”
The vigilance worth it, says McKissick, who remembers his efforts as a teenager in the early 1960s to register black voters in Durham and arrange transportation to the polls. For some, he says, it was their first time voting.
“These were people in their 50s, their 60s, and when they left those polls, their faces were full of pride,” he says. “For the first time in their lives, they had been able to vote for president or congress or city council members. They had a stake in the race and say-so. It made a profound impact on me, and it’s not something you can quickly forget.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Ripe for discrimination.”