Sunday, November 20, 2005

Voting rights: "sea dragon" roused from slumber

When the white state of Alabama gerrymandered the boundaries of Tuskegee in such a way that not even the Tuskegee Institute remained in the city, attorney Fred Gray went into action. To his colleagues who said this was at most a 14th Amendment violation because the disenfranchised black citizens could still vote in county, state, and national elections, he said no: for his clients, who were shut out from voting in the city where they lived, this was a 15th Amendment case. He prevailed with his colleagues. He lost in Frank Johnson's court in the Middle District of Alabama, and he lost in the 5th Circuit, but he won a unanimous opinion from the Supreme Court. Gray said after the opinion came down in Gomillion v. Lightfoot that he believed it was Justice Frankfurter's shock that the Tuskegee Institute was drawn out of the city boundaries that won the case.

When the case went back to Judge Johnson for a remedy, in the face of voter registration requirements that had been systematically manipulated to keep blacks away from the polls, he issued a sweeping order stating that the requirements for black citizens should be no more restrictive than they were for the least qualified white citizen. This idea, which the 5th Circuit adopted and called the "freezing" doctrine, was codified into the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Judge Johnson saw that legislation as even more important than the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

It carried some new law with it. The Fifteenth Amendment had said that a person's right to vote could not be abridged because of race, color or creed or because of a person's history of having been a slave. That's all it said. . . . Thus, you had Southern states like Alabama applying tests and grandfather clauses and so on to thwart the rights of blacks to vote. But the Voting Rights Act brought the process of voting registration to a uniform style and made it abundantly clear that there were to be no literacy testst and poll taxes and so forth to abridge the right of blacks and poor whites to be a part of the election process. The Voting Rights Act, therefore, was some new law.

According to David Garrow, the Voting Rights Act is what made Jimmy Carter's presidency possible.

When Fred Gray argued his case, he used an illustration of the redefined, gerrymandered Tuskegee. He called it a "28-sided sea dragon."

sea lion

He thought he had slain that dragon--but maybe not.

No comments: