A Sold-Out Franchise
Reexamining the frozen promise of the Voting Rights Act
When the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments over the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act this past February, pundits and reporters used an all-but-obligatory set of phrases to describe the legislation. They characterized the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as a “landmark” and the “crown jewel” of the civil rights era, and noted that it still represents the “high-water mark” for both civil rights and voting rights. Yet in some sense, all the lofty rhetoric has come to obscure the real story of one of the Johnson administration’s signal achievements. The Voting Rights Act is now casually lumped together with the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Selma, Alabama, has been blurred in popular memory with Montgomery. Poll taxes and literacy tests are seen as identical to segregated lunch counters, all of which have become relics of a rapidly vanishing past. With Bending Toward Justice, Gary May, a historian at the University of Delaware, attempts to recover the real saga of the act’s passage from the reverent tropes of popular memory, detailing the ways in which the right to vote is fundamentally different from other civil rights, and illuminating all the reasons it remains as fraught today as it was in 1965.
At issue in Shelby County v. Holder, which is now pending before the Supreme Court, is whether nine mostly southern states will be allowed to modify their own voting rules without first clearing the proposed changes with federal officials. At issue in the Shelby County case is a dispute over whether the affected states have outgrown the need for this invasive federal