At summer’s end, just before Ross and I returned to college, the store manager took his “two college boys” to supper at the Amoco Service Station Café. What transpired there after we arrived should not have surprised me: as our conversation died down, Ross got out of the car and headed straight to the back of the café.
As the manager and I entered the front door and were being seated, he said to the waitress, “See to that boy at the back.” On the way from the café back to the store, hearty conversation resumed between Ross and the store manager. I couldn’t say much because the experience at the café had stabbed my heart. I felt ill. Segregation was a fact of life then, but I had never seen it so vividly or so personally illustrated and practiced.
That was August of 1963, one year before the Civil Rights Act and two years before the Voting Rights Act. Thank goodness, segregation has since ended and the voting rights of black citizens have been secured.
Except, that is, in the eyes of Congress. If you live in Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, Alaska, or Georgia, you are still suspect.
Most likely, nobody reading this column has ever owned a slave. It’s doubtful that any reader has ever treated anyone as Ross Coleman was treated. It’s also doubtful that any reader has ever tried to deny black citizens their right to vote.
Even so, Congress doesn’t trust you. It’s as simple as that. Congress doesn’t trust you because of the sins of your fathers and grandfathers. Congress believes that Ross Coleman’s children and grandchildren are enduring the injustice he endured.
At issue is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires prior federal approval of any change in state laws that pertain to voting. Not all 50 states, understand, but the nine states named above. Congress calls it “pre-clearance” It’s actually permission. Unless the law is changed, its 2006 update will extend “pre-clearance” to 2031. Presumably by that time the nine states, having shed their racism, will be “re-constructed.”
Talk about stereotyping or judging people by what their forefathers did or by where they live! Although I have no use for the Wiccan Society, witches and warlocks from Massachusetts might consider lobbying Congress for a law to protect them. Remember the Salem witch trials? Our Mormon friends might also consider a federal law that prevents their being driven any further than Utah.
Silly, of course, but so is a half-century-old law that still punishes particular states for wrongs long abandoned.
Does any proponent of Section 5 really believe that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (both Indian-Americans), or former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (an enlightened Republican leader) believes in suppressing black voting? Doesn’t the election of these three Republican governors, and others, provide a reliable read of the citizens in their states?
Much of Congress’ concern centers on voter ID laws that have been passed in several of the nine states. As sensible as voter ID laws are, Congress views them as efforts to suppress voters, rather than to control ballot corruption. It’s ironic that many states besides the nine have also passed strong voter ID laws.
How condescending for Congress to declare legislatively that a segment of the population is un-reconstructed. How insulting to my four grown children who have made me proud by so nobly living out what they believe about human dignity.
Fortunately, common sense might be on the way. In Shelby County (Ala.) v. Holder, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Section 5 in late February of this year. To his credit, Chief John Roberts pointed out to Justice Department lawyers that, of all 50 states, Mississippi has the best rate of black-to-white voter turnout. The court’s ruling on Shelby County is pending.
Today the state in which Ross Coleman “knew his place” has more black elected officials than any other state. The old Southern racists who suppressed black voters are all dead — and they were all Democrats. We are not like them. Georgians should thank one of their own, 3rd District Congressman Lynn Westmoreland for leading the charge against Section 5.
Congress should cease digging up old bones in order to advance feel-good legislation.
They should also cease punishing citizens for things they never did.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.