The Black Vote: A New Era

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ONCE SOUTHERN officials could no longer prevent blacks from registering, they acted promptly to dilute the power of black ballots. Districts were gerrymandered to reduce black voting majorities, territories were annexed to increase white majorities, and elections traditionally held by wards were changed to those conducted at large. The federal government, under the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, has had the power to combat some of these new obstacles, but electoral rules that had been in operation prior to 1965 were not subject to its review and had to be challenged case by case in the courts, a cumbersome and costly process.

The obstacles that continued to interfere with black political advancement convinced lawmakers to extend the protection of the Voting Rights Act. On three occasions, in 1970, 1975, and 1982, Congress renewed its landmark statute. Not only did the legislature preserve the vital sections of the law, it also expanded them. As a result, literacy tests were banned permanently, eighteen-year-olds—black and white—received the right to vote, and foreign-language minorities throughout the nation were granted the same benefits as were blacks. In addition the legislators extended the act into the twenty-first century and made it easier for civil rights plaintiffs to prove in court that their voting rights were being assailed.

In a single day more Selma blacks registered than had been able to during the past sixty-five years.

Remarkably, the law was strengthened despite presidential opposition. Republicans Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and, most recently, Ronald Reagan all challenged the civil rights forces in Congress only to capitulate in the face of solid legislative support within both parties—North and South—and widespread public approval for protecting black enfranchisement. The most dramatic examples of this national consensus were displayed in 1975 and 1982 when a majority of Southern congressmen voted to renew the Voting Rights Act. Rep. John Buchanan of Alabama summed up the sentiment of his Southern colleagues: “The increased participation of black Americans in the political process through the protections afforded in this act, notwithstanding the fears and dire predictions concerning its effects on States like mine which were voiced in 1965, has hurt our State approximately as much as black participation has hurt Bear Bryant’s football team or the University of Alabama’s basketball team.”

SOUTHERN POLITICIANS came to accept the suffrage law as a political fact of life. Today, campaign racebaiting, so common in the years before 1965, has virtually disappeared, and white candidates regularly compete for black votes. In a stunning departure from the past, George Wallace abandoned the vitriolic rhetoric of racist demagoguery for the language of moderation. In his 1982 race to become governor of Alabama, Wallace wooed black votes and sought to atone for his previous racist sins. “I came to see,” he confessed, “that this society can’t exist with a dual system.” Wallace s conversion was less than religious; he is simply a political realist.

In striving toward political equality, blacks nationwide are working mainly within the Democratic party. During the New Deal, blacks abandoned the GOP for the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the subsequent civil rights records of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson cemented their allegiance to the Democrats. For years Northem blacks have figured prominently in swinging the outcome of close presidential elections. Concentrated in large urban centers in states rich with electoral votes, blacks contributed to the margin of victory obtained by Democratic candidates in 1948 and 1960. The passage of the Voting Rights Act for the first time gave black Southerners the same kind of political leverage. In creating a large black electorate in the South, the act offset conservative white defections to the Republican party and helped install a Democrat in the White House in 1976.

Whatever the final result of the forthcoming presidential contest, blacks appear determined to use their ballots to gain political and economic power. In 1984 and in every future election their burgeoning influence at the polls must be taken seriously by those contending for the highest elected office in the land. This fact is undoubtedly one of the most striking changes in American politics in this century.