Fifty years ago, on March 15, 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson gave one of the most memorable speeches by a U.S. president, calling on Congress to enact a voting rights bill by borrowing the cry of the civil rights movement: “We shall overcome.”
The Voting Rights Act passed a little more than four months later, dramatically changing politics in the American South. Yet there remains a debate over whether it transformed the politics of race.
There are powerful reasons for optimism. An African- American is president; that was unthinkable just two decades ago.
The despicable denial of the basic right to vote has largely ended. Black citizens are registering and voting in impressive numbers.
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In 1965, there hadn’t been a black U.S. senator since Reconstruction. There have been seven since then, including the two who serve today, Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, and Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican. When Johnson delivered his speech, there were only five blacks in the House; now there are 44.
At the local level, the numbers are striking: There are more than 3,000 black elected officials in the states of the old Confederacy.
At the same time, the multitude of disturbing incidents in recent months demonstrates that there remains an ugly underside to U.S. race relations. America is politically polarized, yet some of the opposition to President Barack Obama seems driven, in part, by race. A conservative Republican senator told me recently that his rank and file’s hatred of Obama is so intense and irrational that he found it frightening. (This politician opposes the administration about 80 percent of the time.)
The birther issue – the insane charges that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. and thus wasn’t eligible for the presidency – was demonstrably racially motivated. For all the venom directed at Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, no one suggested they weren’t born in America.
It’s hard not to read racial undertones when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said last month that “I do not believe that the president loves America.”At a gathering of business executives and Republicans, Giuliani said Obama “wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” (Giuliani’s father was a felon who avoided service in World War II.)
And electoral gains by blacks in the South have come at a price: the election of many more right-wing Republicans. Blacks and Republicans often have negotiated redistricting deals that created a predominately black district, along with several Republican-oriented ones.
There are 19 black members of the House who represent districts in the 11 states of the Confederacy; there were none when the Voting Rights Act passed. Of the 129 total districts, 92 are presented by Republicans. In most of the South, moderates of either party seem extinct.
On the economic issues of import to many blacks, the Southern delegation in the House is more conservative than in 1965.
In 1965, more than 40 percent of the white Democratic members from these Southern states voted for Medicare as did four of the 16 Republicans. In 2010, almost 70 percent of Southern representatives voted against the Affordable Care Act.
The health care law also gave states the option to adopt a federally financed expansion of Medicaid, which disproportionately helps blacks. Eight of the 11 Southern states, all but one with Republican governors, have rejected expansion; Arkansas accepted the plan and it is under consideration in two others.
When LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act he reportedly told confidants that Democrats would lose the South for a generation. He knew that more black political involvement would engender a white backlash. He didn’t know these new Republicans would be so conservative.
The civil rights movement broke down economic and social barriers and ushered in new opportunities for black Americans. Politically, the Voting Rights Act has made America a better country, but the road ahead remains tough.