- Bending toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy by Gary May
Gary May’s history of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) was published just a few months before the U. S. Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, struck down Section 4(b) of the act in late June 2013, thus gutting Section 5, which had required nine states and several other covered jurisdictions—counties and cities—to submit for Justice Department “preclearance,” or approval, any proposed change in voting procedure before it could become law. (Most of the states covered in their entirety had belonged to the Confederacy.) Section 4(b) contained the coverage formula by which a jurisdiction fell under Section 5.
The Court’s action, occurring approximately seven years after both houses of Congress had voted overwhelmingly to renew Section 5 for twenty-five years, was a stunning blow to what has generally been called by historians of American voting law the most successful such statute in the nation’s history. Anyone interested in understanding the extent of the damage, actual and symbolic, to the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities caused by this monumental decision would do well to read May’s book, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appropriately, cited in her stinging dissent. (May’s title, it should be noted, comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the end of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, which King, in turn, borrowed from the nineteenth-century abolitionist, Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”)
The VRA became law shortly after the dramatic confrontation between local white Alabama state troopers and civil rights demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, an in-depth account of which appears in the book. When the marchers, led by civil rights activists John Lewis (then in his mid-twenties) and Hosea Williams, reached the end of the bridge, the troopers ordered them to disperse. The activists knelt to pray, and the troopers charged into them, beating them brutally. The event, which came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” was widely covered by the national and international press. Lewis was among those bloodied—he suffered a serious skull fracture as a result. The event pushed a hesitant Lyndon Johnson to sign the VRA shortly thereafter. Along with Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other black civil rights icons, Lewis was present in the White House when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Act. In 2006, by then a longtime Georgia Congressman, Lewis was also a vocal supporter of its extension in 2006; and he gave dramatic speeches in its defense—and Section 5 in particular—as Shelby County v. Holder worked its way to the high court. (He called the Court’s decision on June 25 “a dagger in the heart of voting access.”)
May’s book is important for a number of reasons. First, while it is excellent historiography that meets professional standards, it is written in interesting, readable prose accessible to the layperson, and to students in particular. Once the reader has finished the book, she will have a good grasp of the long, hard, often dangerous battle Blacks and their allies have fought since the end of Reconstruction to achieve equal voting rights, the terrible sacrifices champions of voting rights—particularly southern Blacks—have made in behalf of this goal, and the importance the VRA has had in partially achieving the goal. The story is often dramatic, not only because of May’s storytelling ability, but because the facts themselves are dramatic.
As implied above, the book is, in a sense, a brief history of the struggle for black voting rights since Reconstruction, with the story of the fight for the VRA in churches, in jails, in the streets, in the courts, and in Congress as its central focus. If it has a [End Page 794] shortcoming, it is its failure to examine the period between the penultimate renewal of the...