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Defending Democracy: 50 Years Later, the Civil Rights Act Remains Embattled

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Editor’s Note: In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act (CRA), BVN chose to analyze the legacy of the CRA and re-examine why the landmark legislation is relevant and must be protected. This editorial is a retrospective of the CRA that provides context to the political landscape 50 years ago in comparison to today’s issues.


It wasn’t too long ago that America was on the wrong side of history. Today, 50 years later, lessons of the past are being relearned as the rights minorities painstakingly earned on July 2, 1964 are once again besieged on a new battleground.

Jim Crow is no more, but for segregation to meet its demise, civil rights activists dedicated years of their energy to relentless strife to demonstrate their will and be included in civic participation. Their argument was clear: all men are equal under God and African-Americans were worthy, contributing U.S. citizens who should not be segregated or discriminated against anywhere, including at the polls. President John F. Kennedy was an early proponent of the Civil Rights Act. During this time and as years passed, America became torn at the seams in the Jim Crow South, where civil unrest devolved into violent clashes and deadly confrontations. In the midst of this, legislation was making its way up the chain in Congress and finding support on both sides of the aisle. The Civil Rights Act had more than its fair share of detractors who amplified and validated the opposition’s dispute with the pending legislation. However, President Lyndon B. Johnson, undeterred, chose not to wade out of the issue before he ultimately signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act also became the marquee for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Next to the Emancipation Proclamation, Johnson’s stamp of approval on both acts was the most significant and sweeping landmark legislation in black American history. Gone were the shuttered polls when black voters would arrive. Gone were the senseless competency tests. (Remember the jelly bean test?) Black voters were often subjected to a demeaning impromptu quiz at their polling office that would require them to calculate the number of jelly beans in a jar.

Unlike today, Democrats were not as supportive of the civil rights agenda. Many of the jelly bean test administrators were Democrats. About 15 years before, some Democrats who harbored segregation sentiments branched out and became a part of the later-defunct “Dixiecrat” movement. But Republicans like Rep. Bill McCullough (R-Ohio) and Rep. Clarence Brown of (R-Ohio) were staunch supporters of the Civil Rights Act so it was not uncharacteristic for Republicans to welcome African-American voters – sans the jelly beans – to cast their ballot during elections. Once an ally, to the behest of Tea Party conservatives, the Republican establishment has seemingly pivoted from its stance 50 years ago in several key ways.


Almost exactly one year ago, minority voting rights were dealt a serious blow when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 25 in the Shelby County v. Holder case. A 5-4 majority ruled that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional because the formula used to determine coverage for preclearance was antiquated.

Largely, Republicans didn’t refute the decision. Conservatives are pushing back against President Obama at the expense of anyone who supports him, i.e. minorities.

From the filing of the Shelby County v. Holder case to the Supreme Court’s ruling, this was a compounding issue that allowed personal ideology to prevail. Upon dissecting the background of this case alone, the picture becomes clear.

The case was Shelby County V. Holder. It was filed against Eric Holder, current U.S. Attorney General, an Obama appointee.

Shelby County is in Alabama, which was a hotbed for visceral racism and violence. It was often the heart of the Civil Rights Movement.

The ruling was supported by a majority of conservative-leaning justices.

In 2012, one year before the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Republicans came under fire for attempting to suppress voters, particularly minority voters in ethnically diverse jurisdictions.

The long push for altering racially-gerrymandered voting districts hasn’t helped either. The issue remains prevalent and divisive – and probably one of the reasons why the U.S. House of Representatives will remain red after the 2014 mid-term elections in November.


Many conservatives now want to walk black America back in time. They cannot win all of their battles in court so they seek out legislative avenues. They rely on code words such as “urban” and “low-income” to infer blacks and Hispanics. They identify their targets with far-reaching mediums that relate to the minority circumstance. Step by step, they have gained ground, but the blueprint designed by our predecessors cannot be easily undone.

It’s no secret our Congress is more polarized than ever, sometimes evenly divided along party lines because the spirit of cooperation is diminished. Despite this, President Obama and Holder pledged to move forward and find ways to protect citizens’ access to vote using every law possible. But what will the African-American constituency do? There is an endangered legacy to protect, one that required tears and bloodshed to materialize. Organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are only so strong – and relevant – without the guidance and input of black voters.

Standing on the eve of Independence Day, we should “let freedom ring” and reap the joys of what our forefathers have left for us. And that includes the equal opportunity, regardless of color, to shape our world and reclaim every single right intended for us.

Corey Arvin is a Contributing Editor for Black Voice News and a winner of the national Scripps Howard Award for Web Reporting. His column is published every week on blackvoicenews.com. He can be reached at Corey@Blackvoicenews.com and followed on Twitter at Twitter.com/CoreyArvin.

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