Rosa Parks and Voting Rights: Did we win the battle and lose the war?

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 27, 2013 — On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks broke the law.

Parks, a 42-year-old seamstress and secretary at the local NAACP, caught a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and sat down. Ordered by the bus driver to surrender her seat to a white man, the exhausted Parks refused. She recounted later, ” When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”

The bus driver, James Blake, asked Parks why she didn’t stand. “I don’t think I should have to stand up,” she replied. “Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to have to call the police and have you arrested,” Blake responded. Her subsequent arrest ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a major landmark in the civil rights movement, and it made Parks an icon of the movement.

In her autobiography, Parks said of the her exhaustion that day, “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

When Parks died in October 2005, she lay in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. At the request of President George W. Bush, Congress commissioned the nine-foot bronze statue of Parks for placement in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. President Obama today joined 50 congressional leaders to unveil that statue.

That ceremony, presided over by America’s first black president, created a remarkable juxtaposition to another Washington event, the opening of oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Voting Rights Act forbids the states to impose any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting” that will deny the vote to any citizen on the basis “of race or color.” The Act put oversight of elections and districting in “covered jurisdictions” - states and jurisdictions (including New York City) with a history of voting discrimination - in the hands of the Federal judiciary.  Section 5 requires that the courts pre-clear even minor changes to elections or voting districts.

That preclearance requirement is what brings the Act before the Supreme Court. Political leaders in southern states argue that the demands placed on them by the Act are unwarranted and bureaucratically onerous, and that the practices the Act is meant to prevent have been abandoned for 50 years. Those arguments arose in 2006 when the Act was up for a 25-year extension, but advocates of extending the Act argued that voting-rights abuses still occur, and that they occur more frequently in the covered jurisdictions. The extension was passed and signed into law by President Bush.

Section 5 has been used to block limits to early voting in Florida, and to strike down voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina. During today’s arguments, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy both expressed doubts about the preclearance provision of the law. They were concerned that problems in northern states are as serious as or worse than some in the south, yet the law doesn’t cover those. Kennedy at one point noted, “The Marshall Plan was a good thing at one time, but times change.”

Indeed they do. A black president leading a ceremony to dedicate a statue of a black civil rights icon commissioned by a white president to sit in the Capitol building speaks volumes about changes at the national level, but there are state-level changes as well. Roberts observed that Massachusetts has the worst black voter turnout relative to white in the nation, while Mississippi has the best. “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?” he asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli.

Whether it is the government’s submission, it is probably not the reality. Ugly racial incidents in Boston and Los Angeles have beggared anything in the south in the same time period. Patterns of migration have changed the face of the south, though the economic devastation that has blighted the lives of poor southern whites and blacks alike continues to put the region at the bottom of most national indicators of well-being.

The civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act had a huge political impact on the south and on the nation. What they didn’t do was make a huge difference to the economic realities of the south. It was an economic boycott that turned Montgomery’s politics upside down, yet black leaders and white liberals alike continue to put the political cart before the economic horse.

The Voting Rights Act was important, but it shouldn’t be a fetish. Commenting on the overwhelming vote to extend it in 2006 - 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate - Justice Scalia observed that the vote goes to show that lawmakers are afraid to vote against a law that has become iconic. It would be like voting against a statue of Rosa Parks. Unlike the statue, though, these votes, in Scalia’s words, represent “a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

Southern blacks would be much better served by an economic renaissance in the region, not the endless waging of a war that Justice Breyer seems prepared to wage with his comment, “Of course this is aimed at states. What do you think the Civil War was about?”

It was about Union, a house united, its people free and equal before the law. Section 5 has ceased to promote that and instead stands as a symbol of a house divided. The political freedoms won with so much blood over a century of Civil War and civil rights demonstrations are nothing if we don’t fix the economic fissures that divide us. It’s time to stop fighting the political war and fight instead to win the economic peace.

READ MORE from Jim Picht at “Stimulus That!”

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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