America’s road to racial equality has been rocky and uneven over the last 50 years, but to minimize the progress is also to minimize the accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. and others who achieved the greatest breakthroughs since slavery was abolished.
Last year, the United States marked the passage of the towering Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it possible to dismantle desegregation and other racial humiliations in the face of hostile state and local governments.
But that legislation left important business undone: voting rights.
After the Civil War, states of the old Confederacy found ingenious ways to frustrate the 15th Amendment, enacted in 1870, which promised that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
One device was a poll tax used to price African Americans out of the polling booth. Others included literacy tests and property requirements designed to disqualify former slaves who’d been denied educations and were too poor to own land.
“Grandfather clauses” exempted people who’d been eligible to vote before 1870 – or whose ancestors had been eligible to vote. In other words, whites, not blacks.
A more direct method was raw physical intimidation, which persisted after the legal obstacles began to fall away. In much of the South, most blacks were effectively prevented from voting well into in the 1960s. As a result, there were few blacks in public office, and they were thoroughly excluded from statewide offices. They had no voice in the halls of power. In a democracy, citizenship isn’t worth a dime if you can’t cast a ballot.
The distance between then and now is measured in light years.
Today, the South leads in the number of black elected officials. Democratic candidates – including presidents – often rely on black votes to win office. The nation’s biggest cities have had black mayors; so have many middling-sized cities – like Tacoma.
In 2012, the nation passed a milestone that would have dumbfounded Americans of an earlier generation. That year, for the first time, black citizens voted at a higher rate than white citizens.
The chief argument over disenfranchisement now revolves around whether citizens should produce government ID cards in order to vote. Whatever the effect of voter ID laws, they are a long way from Klansmen with shotguns lurking outside the polls.
A handful of events in 1965 were decisive in the struggle to extend suffrage to blacks and ultimately to other excluded minorities.
One was the brutal police attack on a peaceful civil rights procession on March 7 – Bloody Sunday – depicted dramatically in the new movie “Selma.” The march’s key organizers, James Bevel and Amelia Boynton, are seldom remembered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Boynton was beaten into unconsciousness that day.
The national backlash helped President Lyndon Johnson secure passage of the U.S. Voting Rights Act, which he signed the following August. Johnson had used his legislative skills to shepherd the Civil Rights Act through Congress the year before.
Courageous civil rights leaders – and those two laws – gave the country a hard push toward making good on the promise of equality implicit in the Declaration of Independence. There’s far to go, but the last half century is evidence that the destination can be reached.