In our journey toward a more perfect union, we have witnessed cycles of history since Abraham Lincoln delivered the greatest speech in American history 150 years ago. Two other speeches, 50 years ago this month, complete a cycle of that journey. In our time, we are in the midst of one, incomplete.
On March 4, 1865, Union forces were engaged in mop-up operations from Virginia to South Carolina. After four years, the commander-in-chief was expected to celebrate the Union’s imminent triumph over the rebellion. But at his second inauguration, the president referred only in passing to the progress on the battlefield (“it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all”). Instead he offered a rumination, with a reference to David’s 19th Psalm, on whether the war represented atonement for the Constitution’s original sin:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Five weeks before, Congress had passed the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery. Five years hence, the 15th Amendment would extend the right to vote without regard to “race, color or previous condition of servitude” and give Congress the power to enforce it.
One hundred years later, in the winter of 1965, voting rights organizers targeted Selma for a nonviolent registration campaign. The nation again turned toward Alabama after police shot and killed an unarmed black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, in a diner; sheriff’s deputies beat marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge; and white supremacists murdered a white minister, James Reeb.
‘And we shall overcome’
Six days after Reeb’s death, on March 15, Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress. “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy,” the president began.
“Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people . . .
“Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.”
After outlining what five months later became the first law enforcing the 15th Amendment, Johnson said its enactment would not end the battle.
“What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
“And we shall overcome.”
Like Lincoln, Johnson closed with an interpretation of divine will. “God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.”
Ten days later, 25,000 people completed the march from Selma first attempted on March 7. In front of the Alabama State House, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “I stand before you this afternoon with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and [Governor] Wallace will make the funeral . . .
“Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress men who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God. Let us march on ballot boxes until brotherhood becomes more than a meaningless word in an opening prayer, but the order of the day on every legislative agenda.”
The trinity of Johnson’s civil rights laws – the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act – marked a peak of government action to manifest the ideals of the Declaration. Forty-three years after that, the American people advanced those ideals at the ballot box, electing an African-American president.
But since 2010, we have experienced backlash, as 22 states have restricted voting, mostly by reducing early voting periods or requiring voter ID and/or proof of citizenship (the Supreme Court struck down proof of citizenship). The purpose, supporters claimed, was to prevent fraud. They have offered little evidence but often conflated their allegations with illegal immigration.
The eyes of Texas
In a series of unexplained orders last fall, the Supreme Court weaved all over precedent in blocking some restrictions and allowing others to stand for the 2014 elections. In one, Veasey v. Perry, the high court affirmed the Fifth Circuit’s stay of a federal district court injunction of a Texas law, SB 14, thus allowing elections under the nation’s most restrictive voter ID law.
District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos had found that:
- SB 14 was enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose in violation of the Voting Rights Act
- It effectively imposed an unconstitutional poll tax because of the limited types of qualifying identification
- Texas did not publicize the new requirements
- The state produced no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and
- The law would potentially deny the franchise to 600,000 citizens
Judge Ramos’s 147-page opinion outlines the history of a legislature denying government of the people, by the people and for the people since the 19th century. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in dissent of the Supreme Court’s stay:
“The District Court noted particularly plaintiffs’ evidence – largely unchallenged by Texas – regarding the State’s long history of official discrimination in voting, the statewide existence of racially polarized voting, the incidence of overtly racial political campaigns, the disproportionate lack of minority elected officials, and the failure of elected officials to respond to the concerns of minority voters.”
Neither the Supreme Court nor the Fifth Circuit ruled on the merits of Texas’ appeal. The case is pending. Meanwhile, Texans’ registration and voting rank close to last among the states. Turnout rates – voting age population to voters registered, and registered to voting – fell in 2014, to 34 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
In Montgomery, Dr. King concluded, “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”
He rejoined, “How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
“How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow . . .
“How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”