All year long here on Alabama Public Radio, we’re looking at the 50th anniversary of some of the pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Era. Times of have changed for the better since 1963, but have they changed so much that we can move on from laws meant to protect minorities. Shelby County is challenging a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 saying it’s no longer needed. Today Mason Davis is an accomplished lawyer in Birmingham, but in 1958 he was just a young law student trying to register to vote in Alabama.
“The registrars asked me to explain the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. I started talking and none of them knew what I was talking about,” Davis recalls. “And they ultimately allowed me to become a registered voter.”
While the line of questioning struck Davis as odd it made him also worry what they were asking other potential black voters.
“What do you think they were asking people of people who were not law students?” asks Davis. “They would ask questions on the literacy test some so outrageous as tell the number of jelly beans in this jar.”
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act In 1965. The measure made it illegal to ask voters to pass any test before casting a ballot. Now almost 50 years later Shelby County in Alabama is challenging the constitutionality of one part of the act. Cam Ward is a state senator representing District 14, which includes Shelby County. He says the issue is over something called preclearance.
“Anytime we’d want to annex someone into or cities we have to get permission from the Justice Department, anytime we want to de-annex, change our cities line we have to get permission from the Justice Department,” says Ward. “That seems extremely over burdensome for one section of the country to have to do that over another.”
Ward thinks the Voting Rights Act has served a valuable purpose and continues to do so, but when it comes to the preclearance provision changes need to be made. He’s a supporter of efforts to challenge the act before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The burden that it puts on your local government is tremendous and one slight error can null and void your entire election and you have to start over without any proof of discrimination whatsoever it’s just because you didn’t follow up a piece of paper work with the Justice Department,” says Ward. “There are other areas in the country which also have an unfortunate history with the Civil Rights Movement that this doesn’t apply to so it just seems overly punitive to me.”
Preclearance covers many Southern states, and also towns and counties across the U.S. Alabama points to strides made toward racial equality like electing black judges, mayors, state house members and even sending an African American woman to Congress. Representative Terri Sewell is a native of Selma and represents District 7 which covers much of Alabama’s black belt. She agrees with Ward that racism is not just a southern problem.
“We can’t just say that’s it’s a southern problem because frankly when I studied law school up in Massachusetts the very first time I was called the N word was in Harvard Square now not Selma where I grew up but Massachusetts,” Sewell remembers. “So let’s not be confused, racism is alive and well and it exists across this country and across this world.”
The debate doesn’t seem to be over the absence of racism but whether or not Alabama is any worse than other parts of the country. But claims that Alabama is doing better when it comes to racial discrimination aren’t convincing everyone in the State. Southern Poverty Law Center Co-Founder Joseph Levin has worked on more than 50 major civil rights cases. Levin says when it comes to progress on social issues like race, immigration, and gay rights it just seems like Alabama is slower to come around.
“Alabama is on social issues of this sort for whatever the variety of reasons are that exist in this state is always at least 50 years behind the more progressive states in the country,” he says.
It’s not hard to find people who agree with that assessment…
“I would say more than 50 years, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say Alabama is one of the backward states I know,” says Judge Helen Shores Lee.
Lee is the 10th Circuit Judge in Jefferson County and daughter of the famous civil rights attorney Arthur Shores. His Birmingham house was bombed twice in the early 1960’s during the fight for civil rights.
“They haven't come that far. You can see in the passage of House Bill 56, the anti-immigration bill that we haven't come very far.,” says Lee. “And while the laws of Jim Crow may be gone or off the books the spirit of Jim Crow among many Alabamians is alive and well.”
Efforts to challenge the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court have forced the issue of racial equality back on to the national stage. 50 years has been enough time to integrate schools and elect a black president, but some feel it may be another half century before it's safe to remove the act so many civil rights supporters in Alabamians worked so hard to pass.