05 August 2005

The right to vote still under assault after 40 years

Voting Rights Act:
Key provisions of anti-bias law are up for renewal in 2007

Erin McCormick - August 5, 2005

As a 7-year-old in Richmond's Iron Triangle, the Rev. Andre Shumake was riveted to his parents' television, watching Martin Luther King Jr. celebrate the signing of the Voting Rights Act.

"I remember thinking, 'This means I'll no longer be a second-class citizen,' " he said.

As he ministers 40 years later to a Richmond congregation torn by poverty and violence, Shumake is appalled at how much hasn't changed. In his community and among nonwhites across the United States, political disenfranchisement and voter apathy still reign, and charges of racism regularly crop up.

"Here we are in 2005, still dealing with the issues we were dealing with the '50s and '60s,'' Shumake said.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the act on Aug. 6, 1965, civil rights advocates hoped the new law finally would demolish the wall of racism that largely excluded nonwhites from the American political process. The law banned literacy tests and the other barriers that southern states had erected since blacks won the vote in 1870 to prevent them from voting. And in the three years after it passed, more than a million new nonwhite voters cast ballots in southern states.

But the law's biggest effect since 1968 has been on the complex question of how race should be used in drawing legislative boundaries. Court battles, amendments and legal interpretations have transformed the law into a key weapon in a seemingly endless battle against race discrimination in the electoral process.

As civil rights advocates launch a campaign to renew provisions that will expire in 2007, the law is still invoked in election discrimination debates stretching from Georgia's gerrymandered congressional districts to Monterey County's sprawling farmland.


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