Today the Supreme Court hears arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, the case that will determine the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the Voting Rights Act represented a significant achievement for the young activists of the Civil Rights Movement. Section 5 forces states and select counties with a history of racial discrimination to get Justice Department or federal court approval before changing their voting laws. When enacted, Congress intended Section 5 to be a temporary measure.
Congress extended Section 5 for 25 more years in 2006, and, in 2009, the in the case of NAMUDNO v. Holder, the Supreme Court strongly hinted that it may be time for Congress to revisit Section 5, that states and counties no longer required pre-clearance because the racism that had once prevented African-Americans from voting in those areas had waned.
Judy Richardson fought for voting rights on the front lines, as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama throughout the early 1960s. Today, Richardson is a filmmaker and author, a co-producer of the civil rights documentary "Eyes on the Prize" and an editor of "Hands on the Freedom Plow." She says that "you can't predict the future," but in 2013 Section 5 is clearly necessary. Many state legislatures, Judy explains, "have eliminated access to the vote…through voter ID, through no early voting, through no Sunday votes, all of it meant to cut back on black and Latino voters."
Her former SNCC colleague, Charles Cobb, agrees. Cobb moved to Mississippi to work as a field secretary for SNCC in 1962, and he says that, "if you're asking me if we'll need a Voting Rights Act 200 years from now, I can't say." But, Cobb continues, "if you're talking about now, the 21st century, I say yes… There's clearly a campaign underway to disenfranchise, I would argue, both blacks and Hispanics."
Today Cobb is a journalist and author, most recently, of "On The Road to Freedom, a Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail." He recalls his SNCC days vividly. Back then, he explains, "People needed to know that trying to register to vote was a legitimate thing. Remember, we were up against a hundred years of people being told that they were inferior, and really that they weren't qualified."
Richardson remembers joining the sit-in movement in Maryland and eventually traveling south to help register African-American voters. She grew up in Tarrytown, New York, and recalls her shock upon realizing that, as a black woman activist in the South in the early 1960s, "It's not only that the state governments want you dead...but also the federal government whom I assumed would protect us — they are taking notes and not doing diddly."
Both Richardson and Cobb emphasized the trails blazed by earlier black activists and local African-American leaders. Cobb helped Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer register to vote, and remembered a story that his friend and fellow activist, Charles MacLauren, told him.
MacLauren "brought the first three black people to try and register to vote in Sunflower County [Mississippi] in the 20th century," Cobb says. "Three little women, who he called 'my little old ladies.' And Mac was telling me, when I asked him how it went, he said there was a whole mob at the county courthouse waiting for them. And one of the little ladies grabbed him by the hand and said, 'Son, are we going on in now?' And they walked and Mac told me, 'That's the day I became a man.'"