North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

Opinion

March 1, 2013

Steve Flowers: Shelby County case challenges Voting Rights Act

COMMENTARY — The 1960s was a tumultuous time in southern politics. George Wallace came on the scene and won the governor’s office with the most anti-integration rhetoric in history. He threw down the gauntlet with his January 1963 inaugural speech, declaring, “segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.” White Alabamians shouted their approval.

However, it was a futile attempt at defying the federal government, as was Wallace’s symbolic stand in the schoolhouse door later that year. The U.S. Supreme Court had already decided that separate but equal schools were unconstitutional. In essence, Wallace was tilting at windmills, or in southern jargon, barking at the moon.

Lyndon Johnson had been a southern U.S. Senator from Texas. He had fought all civil rights legislation with as zealous an effort as the other bloc of southern senators. This southern bloc totally controlled the Senate through their seniority and prowess. They were a formidable coalition. However, Johnson had now become a national politician. He had ascended to the presidency at the death of John Kennedy and aspired to win the brass ring on his own in 1964.

When Lyndon Johnson set his sights on something, nothing or nobody better get in his way. Whatever it took or by whatever means necessary, Lyndon Johnson was determined to win.

Johnson called George Wallace to the White House to meet with him. Wallace was cocky and full of vim and vinegar. At barely 5-foot-8, he was like a bantam rooster. Although he was used to being the cock of the walk, it did not take long for the tall, tough, crude, intimidating Johnson to put Wallace in his place.

Johnson scowled at Wallace and told him he was nothing more than a redneck, tin-horn demagogue and he could shout segregation and racist jargon as much as he wanted, but it was not going to make a bit of difference.

Johnson went on to say that by the end of the year he was going to pass a civil rights bill and sign it. He told Wallace that Strom Thurmond and his allies could filibuster all they wanted, but at the end of the day it was going to be the law of the land and it was going to propel Johnson to victory in 1964. Wallace came back to Alabama with his hat in hand. He knew Johnson meant business.

The bill passed and Johnson signed it. Being a southerner, Johnson knew the ramifications when he signed the Civil Rights Act. He looked up and said, “I have just signed the South over to the Republican Party.” His words were prophetic.

Later that year, Johnson won the presidency in a landslide. He carried practically every state in the nation except the five Deep South states. We voted for Republican Barry Goldwater. We have not looked back. Johnson’s prognostication rings true 50 years later.

In 1965, Johnson set his sights on a higher goal and passed the Voting Rights Act. He took aim at the Deep South and bestowed his renowned retribution extraction in Section 4B and Section 5. It requires that those five states and certain regions that voted for Goldwater must have any changes to their voting laws or procedures approved by the U.S. Justice Department.

Now comes Alabama’s Shelby County, and says this yoke is no longer needed. Their lawyer is former State Sen. Butch Ellis, a highly respected attorney. His grandfather, Handy Ellis, lost to Big Jim Folsom in the 1946 governor’s race.

Ellis argues that “The South is not the same old South that it was.” Surprisingly, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Shelby County case. Shelby County is a well-heeled suburban county south of Birmingham. It is 85 percent white and can afford the cost of litigating this issue before the highest court in the land.

The NAACP and black residents in Shelby County say the law is still needed to protect their voting rights. Birmingham Rep. Demetrius Newton, who was the first African American speaker pro tem of the Alabama House of Representatives, believes there are still efforts to limit the power of minorities.

The Supreme Court will hear the case this week, and will more than likely decide this year whether Shelby County and the Deep South can be removed from the pre-clearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We shall see.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. He served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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