In justifying the decision to quash the protections of the Voting Rights Act for African-American, Latino and other voters of color, the chief justice of the Supreme Court wrote "things have changed." And, in a sense, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. is correct: As this nation has tumbled through time grappling with its own history, the persistence of states of the former Confederacy in suppressing African-American voting power has adapted, shape-shifted and adopted clever disguises. Efforts to extend voter suppression against Latino, Native-American and Asian-American voters in these states have also proliferated. Indeed, things have changed.
Of course, there has been significant progress for voters of color since 1965, when hundreds of heroes risked their lives in crossing a small bridge in Selma, Ala. - a bridge named after Confederate brigadier and "Grand Dragon" Edmund Pettus. Those marchers, met on the Montgomery side of the bridge by state troopers, attack dogs, tear gas and arms, would likely have a lot to teach us about the progress that has been made since 1965.
In fact, just months after the senseless state violence of Bloody Sunday, the Voting Rights Act was passed - a desperately needed piece of legislation to enforce the simple but fundamental mandates of the 15th Amendment. The Voting Rights Act itself represented tremendous progress; the work that it did from 1965 until the recent ruling was additional progress.
But the Voting Rights Act has not yet completed its important work because, as Justice John Roberts said, things have changed. The poll taxes, "literacy" tests and grandfather clauses that were the targets of the Selma marchers are thankfully relics of history for most Americans now. Today's voter discrimination takes some different incarnations, in the form of voter ID laws, at-large election districts and redistricting schemes that either fracture communities of color among many districts or stuff them into a small number of oversaturated ones.
Although there have been significant advances since 1965, our march toward equality is hardly complete. The progress that we have made is fragile and could be fleeting. So fleeting, in fact, that not hours after the court's decision, Texas' attorney general boasted that he would renew the state's previously rejected photo ID law, which, in August 2012, a panel of three federal court judges called the strictest and most unforgiving such law in the country.
Over the past 25 years, the Voting Rights Act has prevented more than 1,000 similar discriminatory proposals from turning the clock back on our democracy. In her blistering dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "Hubris is a fit word for today's demolition of the VRA."
"Things have changed" - and, yes, as we reflect on new voter ID laws, local and statewide redistricting schemes that severely limit majority-minority districts, and the staggering lengths of lines in predominantly minority polling stations, the chief justice is correct. But unless we have the strength and honesty to stay the course with important provisions of the Voting Rights Act, unless we have ceased to encounter voter ID laws that make it nearly impossible for voters of color and working voters to secure required documentation, unless communities can count not only on casting ballots but also on having their ballots count, nothing has changed nearly enough.
And the change we need now is for Congress to step in to maintain the Voting Rights Act, and to ensure that we move closer and closer to the multi-pronged goals of the Selma marchers, whose objective was, on one hand, to vote, and, on the other, to be seen, to be heard, and to participate fully and meaningfully in this treasured and evolving democracy that we all share together.
Natasha M. Korgaonkar is an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. This column was distributed by the MCT News Service.