Equal voting rights still a dream in NC?

Critics question efforts to suppress black vote in a state that was a flash point during the fight for civil rights

Voters fill out ballots at the Manley Reece Post 2573 VFW Hall polling station in May 6, 2008 in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

For Noah Read, Mondays have become a day set aside for civil disobedience.

For months, the 42-year-old from Burlington, N.C., has rearranged his work schedule as a restoration contractor so he can participate in weekly protests. The Moral Monday rallies, launched by the North Carolina NAACP outside the state's general assembly in late April, continue to attract thousands to Raleigh to voice opposition to a spate of Republican-led legislation that critics pan as socially regressive. The issues range from an education budget devoid of teacher raises to the state's decision to end federal unemployment benefits.

"There's one issue that affects all of the constituents that are gathering at Moral Mondays, and that is voting rights and voting access," Read said.

Now, 50 years after Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington, the state that was the site of the Greensboro sit-ins protesting segregation in 1960 is again a flash point in the debate over voting rights -- proving for many that the struggle for racial equality is not over.

In July, North Carolina became the first state to tighten voting laws after the Supreme Court's contentious decision to strike down the part of the Voting Rights Act that determined which jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices were required to obtain Justice Department approval before changing their voting laws. The state's changes include eliminating same-day registration, cutting early voting by seven days, doing away with early registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and accepting only certain forms of photo identification.

"Common practices like boarding an airplane and purchasing Sudafed require photo ID, and we should expect nothing less for the protection of our right to vote," Gov. Pat McCrory said in a press release.

The protests in Raleigh inspired Read to get politically involved. Read, who is white, joined his local NAACP chapter. One week before the anniversary of the 1963 march, he was organizing a bus trip to send Moral Monday protesters to Charlotte.

"I think we're all looking to the successes to the past, but I think it's very important not to just reminisce," Read said. "You think you come up with solutions, but challenges don't often stay solved."

'Our rightful place'

The March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, was a high point in the struggle to end a century of oppression under Jim Crow laws and brought the country closer to universal human rights, according to one scholar.

"I think people who have this nostalgia for the civil rights struggle during its glory years of 1963, 1964, 1965 --  that's not going to happen again," said Dr. Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. "You have those exceptional times when movements become massive in scale."

While the fall of Jim Crow didn't happen in a day, big changes occurred within the first two years after the March on Washington, he said.

"Those kinds of barriers have come rapidly down. But it doesn't mean that we have created a level playing field for everyone," Carson said. "I would argue after any victory over oppression, you still have other sources of oppression that come in its place."

The Supreme Court says, We can strike down a section of the Voting Rights Act because it's no longer needed, but then as soon as they do that, Southern states prove that it's needed.

Education policies, for example, can lead to resegregation if left unchecked, some say. Critics argue that charter-school options can leave disadvantaged students behind in poorly performing schools because, as one analyst at the Brookings Institution found, "more choice is associated with minority students attending less diverse schools."

Decisions to end diversity programs, like the one made in Wake County, N.C., several years ago, have also raised concerns with federal education officials.

"In an increasingly diverse society like ours, racial isolation is not a positive outcome for children of any color or background," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a letter to the Washington Post in 2011 denouncing the policy's undoing.

And then there's the American disease of historical amnesia, Carson said.

"You don't have to face up to racism. People can claim they are doing this for other reasons," he said. "It is so ironic that the Supreme Court says, We can strike down a section of the Voting Rights Act because it's no longer needed, but then as soon as they do that, Southern states prove that it's needed."

"These are direct attempts to suppress the vote," charges the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. "You don't have to suppress all the vote. If you could suppress just 1 to 2 percent of the vote, you can change the electorate."

According to Barber, 40 percent of black voters in North Carolina have used same-day registration, 70 percent of minorities use early voting, and as many as 300,000 do not have the kind of voter identification the new law requires. Many of the people, he adds, have been voting for years.

"It's not as though this is temporary hyperventilation," said Barber, who was born two days after the March on Washington. "There is something happening here in North Carolina where people are coming together. When you see the NAACP go to the mountains of North Carolina and thousands of people show up in communities where less than 10 percent are African-American, that's not normal," he said. "That's a movement."

'Blood and bombs'

The March on Washington was the result of nearly a decade of struggles and battles, recalled veteran civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was an aide to King. The climate was one of tremendous hostility, he told Al Jazeera America.

"The context of the 1963 speech was challenging barbarism and humiliation of people outside of the protection of law," he said. "It was a year of blood and bombs and tears, yet we did not shrink away from the challenges of that time."

Reflecting on the anniversary, Jackson acknowledges there may be a generational gap.

"Some people, it's to remember. Others, it's never to have known. Those who fight for rights and those who inherit rights -- they see them differently," he said. "The reality check has a way of acquainting them with unfinished business."

North Carolina's new voting laws, he said, are being mirrored elsewhere, in Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"We now have to protect the rights we gained. We need an amendment in the Constitution to protect the right to vote" and move beyond 50 separate electoral systems, Jackson said. "That must be the response to the Supreme Court."

While codifying explicit voting rights through a constitutional amendment might be beneficial, adopting one takes time, said Kareem Crayton, a law professor who studies race and politics at the University of North Carolina's School of Law in Chapel Hill.

"At the end of the day, a constitutional amendment is only as good as the Supreme Court is willing to interpret," Crayton said. "The broader question to be asked is whether or not all this litigation is the world in which the Supreme Court is comfortable with in its estimation that Section 5 [of the Voting Rights Act] was no longer needed," he said.

The past five decades have seen progress in bringing minorities into formal political decision-making, Crayton said.

"As more of them were registered and started to vote, as soon as they started to enforce that Voting Rights Act, you obviously you had more of a shift in leadership that was responsive to the African-American community," he said.

The U.S. government, however, has taken an active role in ensuring their place at the table for only 50 years, he said.

"Unfortunately, I think many people, including members of the Supreme Court, do not want to fully acknowledge that the ideology is a much more pernicious and long-term project," Crayton said.

More significantly, some members of the public seem to forget that this is a long-term problem, he said.

"No one is now making the argument that African-Americans should not have access to the ballot," Crayton said. "However, the effect of these provisions is that African-Americans are not going to have access to the ballot."

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