BY VERN TURNER
A friend recently asked me if all the civil rights work we did in the ‘60s and ‘70s was worth it. He, like me, was in the “dumps” over the recent Supreme Court ruling that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was obsolete and even prejudicial.
The question that kept nagging us was: Why didn’t the law just get expanded to cover the other states that were excluded from this provision? Instead we heard something quite different.
Robert Parry recently wrote a book titled Secrecy and Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. He said, “Neo-Confederate members of the Supreme Court are gearing up to restore white rule over America by tearing up the Voting Rights Act.” He wrote this before the court announced its decision, and the right-wing majority validated the prediction.
It means that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting will be free to impose new obstacles to voting by constituencies that tend to vote for Democrats. Already in Texas and several other states Republicans are jumping for joy that they can once again help ensure their voting dominance and keep white-dominated rule in government.
The Republicans’ aggressive gerrymandering of congressional districts has ensured a continued GOP majority in the U.S. House of Representatives although Democrats outpolled Republicans nationwide in Election 2012.
This green light to renew Jim Crow laws also comes at a time when Republican legislatures and governors across the country are devising new strategies to dilute or stop the votes from minorities and urban dwellers to protect GOP power – especially within the federal government. Some GOP-controlled states, that tend to vote Democratic in presidential elections, are now considering apportioning presidential electors according to these gerrymandered districts to give Republican presidential candidates most of the electoral votes even if they lose the popular vote.
The five partisan Republican justices showed us all they wanted to do their part in devaluing the votes of blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and young urban whites. The GOP justices indicated during oral arguments that they sought excuses to strike down the heart of the Voting Rights Act.
Extremist Justice Antonin Scalia shocked the courtroom when he dismissed the Voting Rights Act was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement,” suggesting that the right of blacks to vote was some kind of government handout. Equally troubling was the remark from Justice Anthony Kennedy who insisted that the Voting Rights Act – which was first enacted by Congress in 1965 and was renewed unanimously by Congress in 2006 – was an intrusion on Alabama as an “independent sovereign,” a phrase from the States’ Rights language reminiscent of the Old Confederacy.
The five Republican justices, including Roberts, Thomas and Alito, seem to have absorbed a Neo-Confederate interpretation of the Constitution that conflicts dramatically with what the Framers intended.
The language about “independent” and “sovereign” states was part of the Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States from 1777 to 1787. They proved to be so disastrous that George Washington and James Madison insisted that the Articles be tossed out entirely during the writing of the Constitution in 1787.
General Washington, in particular, hated the concept of “independent” and “sovereign” states because he saw how badly that worked when trying to supply his troops during the Revolutionary War. The states often reneged on their promises to provide support, and the central government had little power to override them.
With the Articles failing as a governing structure, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia was instructed to propose amendments. Washington and Madison eliminated the Articles in favor of the new Constitution. It is this Constitution that made federal law supreme and transferred national sovereignty from the 13 states to “We the People.”
All language about state “sovereignty” and “independence” was expunged, though the Framers left the states substantial control over local matters.
The tensions between the federal government and the states continued, however, especially over the South’s insistence that slavery be made permanent. Among the compromises in Philadelphia, was a particularly offensive clause that counted black slaves as “three-fifths of a person” for the purpose of electoral representation. Slave states also wanted their “peculiar institution” extended to incoming states to prevent non-slave states outvoting the slave states in Congress. Ultimately, this dispute led to Southern states seceding from the Union after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.
The North’s “victory” in the Civil War seemed to establish the supremacy of federal law as expressed in the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment was enacted in the waning days of the conflict, abolishing slavery once and for all.
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments then established the principles of equal protection under the law, including the right to vote.
Still, the former slave states didn’t stop. With whites reasserting their racial supremacy and their political dominance through electoral trickery and terrorist violence, the states of the Old Confederacy created a Jim Crow system of racial segregation that included devious means to rob African-Americans of the voting franchise.
The civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ‘60s, pushed the federal government to address these racist laws and actions. This intervention produced an angry white backlash in the South which resulted in an overwhelming shift to Republican dominance there.
Over the past half century, wealthy right-wing Republicans, have invested millions of dollars in “think tanks” such as the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and The Federalist Society. All of these organizations are dedicated to cherry-picking the nation’s early history to transform America’s founding narrative into its own, opposite one.
Through these attempts to rewrite history, they turned Washington and Madison, devoted Federalists, into states’ rights lovers and federal government haters. They did this by forgetting the facts and replacing them with states’ rights language from the Articles of Confederation.
This history re-write made states “sovereign” and “independent” from the U.S. Constitution, the document intended for “we the people.” [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative for more on the way right-wing historians attempt to rewrite historical documents and events].
Unfortunately, it’s not just the right-wing historians that emphasize the 10th Amendment over the large number of rulings that define Federal supremacy over state laws. The five right-wing justices on the Supreme Court are the product of right-wing fueled misinterpretations of U.S. history and Neo-Confederate revisionism.
These men absorbed this ersatz history as they rose through the ranks of right-wing ideology and institutions, and are now in position to impose their false constitutional thinking on the United States, particularly as those theories relate to the present Republican crisis with the country’s changing demographics.
As the white population shrinks to below 50%, the only way to sustain white control is by devaluing minority votes by, in effect reinstating a way of making those votes worth only three-fifths of a person.
It is amazing to see how little progress we’ve really made in the last 150 years.
– Vern Turner is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. He lives in Marble Falls, TX, where he writes a regular column for the River Cities Daily Tribune. He is the author of three books – A Worm in the Apple: The Inside Story of Public Schools, The Voters Guide to National Salvation and Killing the Dream: America’s Flirtation With Third World Status – all available through Amazon.com.