For many civil rights veterans, 2013 might as well be 1963.
On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. This invalidated Section 5, which required states with a history of voter discrimination to obtain approval from the federal government before making certain changes related to voting.
In the wake of the decision Fulton County is currently planning on going through a redistricting plan – a Republican-led move that would create three majority White commission districts, and three majority Black commission districts.
Currently there are five districts; three of the districts typically elect Black commissioners, while the other two typically elect White commissioners. There are also two county-wide at-large commission seats with Black incumbents. The new plans would remove one of the at-large commission seats, which is typically held by a Black Democrat, and also draw two Black commissioners into the same district. Critics of the redistricting plan say that the move will likely reduce minority representation in Fulton County.
“Those two things combine to dilute African American voting strength…the ability of black voters to vote for candidates of their choice,” said Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort.
In recent years, Georgia lawmakers have released several other pieces of voting related legislation that many believed could negatively impact Black voters.
In 2005, Georgia became one of the first states to institute a voter ID law. The law requires all voters to have a state-issued voter ID for their votes to be counted; before the law voters were able to show one of 17 forms of identification. Four years later in 2009, another law was passed that required newly registering votes to show proof of citizenship. Then in 2012, the early voting period was shortened from 45 to 21 days.
Legislation such as this is of concern to many because minority voters are less likely to possess the type of identification required. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, 8 percent of voting age White Americans lack government issued photo ID’s, compared to one quarter of voting age Black Americans. Minority voters are also more likely than white voters to vote early.
Despite what the numbers would imply, Black voter turnout in Georgia has increased in the past few years. Fort calls this an “unintended consequence” of the new voting laws.
“There was a backlash against [the laws] where African Americans went to the polls in record numbers just to prove that they were not going to be dissuaded from voting,” he said.
Others say that a different factor may be responsible for the high turnout. PolitiFact Georgia interviewed three local political science professors, all of whom said that recent years were a “special case” because of the election of Barack Obama, whose campaign likely mobilized more Black voters.
Political science professor Charles Bullock of the University of Georgia told PolitiFact that the increased numbers “suggest if you want to go out and vote, you’ll do that.”
Among civil rights activists, views of what action should look like in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling seem to be divided along generational lines.
Former Southern Christian Leadership Conference CEO Charles Steele, who called the Supreme Court’s decision “a setback” and “an awakening,” says the solution must include the same tactics that created the Voting Rights Act.
“You must fill the streets,” he said. “Like we did in the ’50s and the ’60s, we must do it now, starting today.”
Steele, who in 1985 became the first African American elected to the City Council of Tuscaloosa, expressed enthusiasm for the upcoming reenactment of the March on Washington in August, hoping that it will energize the million or so people that are expected to attend.
“We’re too quiet,” he said. “We’ve got to make some noise, and we must continue to make noise.”
Rev. Joseph L. Williams, 35, on the other hand, says that a slightly different approach is needed. While he says that the public needs to be energized for change to take place, he also expressed his belief that a change of tactics is necessary.
“African Americans are in a different place, our country is in a different place, our world is in a different place,” said Williams. “Our leadership in our community as African Americans is still attached to the leadership style and model of the civil rights movement, and I think it’s a problematic one that needs to be adjusted.”
Williams, a pastor who also writes, lectures, and performs social service work, says that the Supreme Court’s ruling is “an indicator of where we are as a society.”
“Our society is trying to move in the direction of a raceless society in my opinion, I just don’t believe it knows exactly how to do that,” he said.
Working toward a “raceless society” is what Williams says is the best strategy to move forward. He insists that people shouldn’t always use race as a framework to understand what happens in society.
“People want to demolish racism, but they’re trying to destroy racism within a society of race, and it’s virtually impossible,” Williams said. “What happens is when you see things like the Voting Rights Act, you read into it race, when perhaps race isn’t the foundation of why it was done or why it was not done.”
Williams is currently working on a documentary called “Kolorstruck,” which discusses race as a social construction. It is a project he hopes will bring a “fresh, new approach” to the conversation of race and racial issues.
To Fort, the fight against disenfranchisement of Black voters lies in community support for elected officials who are engaged in the movement.
“We need to elect a house of representatives that will pass good voting rights laws,” he said. “African American elected officials in particular have a responsibility to make sure that they educate, facilitate what the activists are doing.