SHELBY COUNTY, ALABAMA — When Dr. Earl Cunningham first tried to register to vote in his hometown of Montevallo in 1953, he was asked to pay a poll tax of $1.50, answer obscure questions about the state constitution and have a white employer vouch for his character. After he did all this successfully, the county clerk told him to go buy his own pencil at a shop down the street in order to fill out the necessary forms.
“Then you know what he told me?” said Cunningham. “He said, ‘Sign your name, if you can.’”
Decades later, in 2013, Cunningham sat in the front row of the US Supreme Court as a majority of the justices decided to gut the law that put an end to those restrictive practices: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he was one of the lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which argued that federal protection was still needed for states and counties — like Shelby — with a history of racism and voter suppression.
“I remember hearing one of the justices describe the law as an ‘racial entitlement.’ I wanted to scream,” he told ThinkProgress. “Voting rights is the foundation of liberty, and Section 5 is the heart of the Voting Rights Act.”
A new Pharaoh
Another plaintiff sitting in the courtroom that day was Ernest Montgomery — Calera, Alabama’s only city council member of color. Back in 2008, the city redrew its voting maps so that his district went from nearly 70 percent black to less than 30 percent, and he subsequently lost his council seat in the next election. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which gave the federal government the ability to challenge discriminatory changes to voting laws in states and counties with a legacy of racism and voter suppression, the Justice Department threw out Calera’s new maps for unconstitutionally diluting the minority vote. They ordered another election, and Montgomery won his seat back.
Sitting in the empty fellowship hall of his church, Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist, Montgomery told ThinkProgress that he’s concerned new discriminatory voting changes could be pushed through now that those Justice Departments protections are gone.
“The current city council and mayor are really great people and I don’t think they have intentions to disenfranchise anybody, but my biggest concern what happens when new people come along, what will be their mindset,” he said. “People know the story of the Pharaoh who was kind to Joseph, but look what happened when the new Pharaoh came in. That’s why I think the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act needs to be in place. I have more trust in a law than I do in the word of people.”
Alabama has not had to wait for a new Pharaoh to feel the impact.
Almost immediately after the Supreme Court ruled in the summer of 2013 to strike down Section 5, Alabama legislature passed a voter ID law estimated to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters who lack both the proper identification and the means to acquire it.
“Undeniably, a significant amount of the population is going to find it harder to vote: the disabled, senior citizens, the younger population,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D), who represents Selma in the US Congress, told ThinkProgress.
One of the people burdened by the policy is her own father — the former basketball coach at Selma High School. Ten years ago, he suffered a series of strokes that left him in a wheelchair, and no longer has a valid drivers license. Since then, he voted using his Social Security card, but since it doesn’t include a photo, it isn’t accepted under the new law.
“He wanted to vote, so my mom and I made sure we got him to the county courthouse to get his photo ID,” said Sewell. “But it was an ordeal. Think of all the elderly people who may not have family members who have the ability to do that.”
The watchful eye Had the Supreme Court not ruled against Cunningham, Montgomery and the other Shelby County plaintiffs, the Justice Department would have had an opportunity to study whether the voter ID law and other changes the state would have a discriminatory impact. Now, states are free to make the changes, and if racial voter suppression results, it’s up to individuals to find lawyers and sue their government.
Leah Aden with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represented the Shelby County plaintiffs, told ThinkProgress she and other civil rights lawyers are currently scrambling to take over the monitoring the federal government once provided. She has Google alerts set up for areas with a history of discrimination, scours local newspapers and City Council minutes, and takes calls from voters around the country — reporting something as small as one polling place cutting its hours to something as big as a state requiring proof of citizenship at the polls.
“It’s impossible for us to recreate the notice we used to get under Section 5,” she said. “And it’s so much harder for residents to bring a challenge. Why would they spend three to five years and potentially millions of dollars just to fight their city moving a polling place?”
Members of Congress recently introduced a bill to restore federal protections, including pre-clearance, but it doesn’t include Alabama. This is just fine with Alabama’s new Secretary of State, but not with local civil rights leaders, or Congresswoman Sewell.
“We’re living in a fairy tale if we think we’ve reached a point where federal protection is not needed,” said Sewell, who refuses to support the bill in its current form. “The vulnerable communities I represent deserve to have the watchful eye of the federal government on the front end, not the back end. We are a far cry from where we were in the 1960s but we are nowhere near where we need to be.”
Just last year, courts found evidence of intentional discrimination against minority voters in Evergreen, Alabama. There, black residents were intimidated, improperly purged from the voter rolls, and had their city’s voting map gerrymandered to dilute black city council representation.
Any week now, another Supreme Court ruling could make things even worse. The Justices are currently considering whether Alabama engaged in racial and political gerrymandering when they redrew their voting maps in 2012. The African American state lawmakers who challenged the maps say the Republican majority created odd-shaped districts in a way that packed together communities of color and prevented them from having a broader political influence.
“That’s the kind of stuff I’m afraid of, right there,” Montgomery said. “When you do not have inclusion of all your citizens and represent all of them, you have problems. For example, there are no African Americans on our County Commission or any other minorities and I don’t like that. I think a piano makes a better sound when you have black and white keys.”
“Hell no, we’re not going back”
Growing up, Cunningham couldn’t check books out of the local library. He worked as a cook and dish washer at several local restaurants, but could never be a customer. His grandfather, who was born a slave, and his father, were two of a tiny handful of African Americans registered to vote, but they always voted absentee out of fear of violence from their white neighbors.
“The cry now is, ‘Hell no, we’re not going back,’” he told ThinkProgress, noting that the Supreme Court ruling has motivated many people of color in his community to become more active in the struggle for civil rights.
“You never would not have gotten 150 people to form an NAACP chapter in Shelby County before that,” he said. “But now we’re awake and alert and determined.”
The plaintiffs, including Montgomery, will also keep pushing for Congress to pass a Voting Rights Act that restores the pre-clearance protection, which he feels is vital to maintain the progress made over the last 50 years.
“My neighborhood is diverse now, but it wasn’t because people woke up one day and said to Black folks, ‘Hey, you can move near me now.’ It was federal housing laws that done it,” he said. “Same with the Voting Rights Act. Why would we get rid of the laws that got us to where we are now? If the medicine is working, why stop taking it?”