American democracy has always been a deeply contested affair - doubly so in terms of racial politics. It is impossible to separate the evolution of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) from the continuation of racist trends in Southern and American politics. Before 1965, the South had never been a democracy. The undemocratic face of the Jim Crow era has been well documented. This history not only cast a long shadow over the region’s politics in the late twentieth century, it also belies the story of the civil rights movement as a triumph narrative. To be sure, voting rights upended de jure segregation. The freedom struggle, however, failed to eradicate deeply embedded, institutional racism from Southern life. Bigotry, despite the record number of elected minority officials after 1965, found new and continuous expression in the politics of the post-civil rights movement. Indeed, the continuity of vote dilution and the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby (which effectively gutted Section 4 of the VRA by prohibiting triggering mechanisms as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance) has forced scholars to reimagine the arc of American racial progress. This chapter demonstrates the declension of minority voting rights by highlighting several key moments on the road to Shelby: namely, political developments during the Nixon administration, the VRA’s renewal in 1982, the Shaw v. Reno (1993) case, and the rise of anti-VRA litigants. While these developments do not represent the entire history of the VRA’s dismantling, it is the author’s contention that they speak directly to the Court’s findings in Shelby. The Voting Rights Act’s legitimacy depended on support from a combination of Congress, the courts and the executive branch. Conservatives spent the better portion of late twentieth century weakening that support. Shelby was the coup de grâce.
Julian Maxwell Hayter
This chapter examines one of the most popular—not populist—movements in recent history: the American civil rights movement. This movement is celebrated for its adherence to non-violent resistance and direct-action protest. Popular and academic interest in these strategies, however, often overshadows the sustained quest for black voting rights. This chapter contends that the quest for voting rights during the American civil rights movement pushed Washington toward the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 and that this movement and the realization of the VRA were pluralist, rather than populist. Segregationist oligarchies all but ensured that race and class in the South would prohibit broad-based, interracial political coalitions. While the movement stood in direct contrast to the types of elitism that populists often target, African Americans’ quest for a more liberal democracy sought to upend the types of racist populism and elitism that characterized much of Jim Crow segregation.
Julian Maxwell Hayter
Chapter 7 focuses on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a direct assault on institutionalized racial discrimination. Julian Maxwell Hayter examines the political and racial climates that influenced the act and discusses a number of the act’s key titles to show how it moved beyond eliminating racial segregation. Hayter shows that while the act did not end discrimination and segregation in all forms, it introduced a shift in American racial reforms.