March 7 marked 50 years since 1965’s “Bloody Sunday,” when millions watched on television as state and local police fired tear gas at the crowd and attacked marchers in Selma, Alabama. The national outrage that followed led to a speech by President Lyndon Johnson to a joint meeting of Congress — appealing for Voting Rights legislation. On March 17, Democrat Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen introduced the bill.
Although the Democrats held two-thirds of the seats in both houses, these events gave it the momentum to pass, for Republican votes would counterbalance the worry that segregationist Southern Democrats would vote against it.
The bill passed and was signed into law on August 6 by President Johnson.
Forgotten by many, this followed in the tradition of Republicans pushing through the passage of the constitutional amendments —the 13th, 14th, and 15th — between 1865 and 1870 that outlawed slavery, clarified and protected citizenship rights, and prohibited denial of voting “on the basis of race, or previous condition of servitude.”
Alas, 50 years after “Bloody Sunday and 145 to 150 after passage of those three historic amendments, race relations are getting worse. Last month, the Justice Department released a report that the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department had systematically abused its power. There were two facts in the report that stunned Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart. He wrote:
What DOJ found made me ill. [Officer] Wilson knew about the theft of the cigarillos from the convenience store and had a description of the suspects. [Suspect] Brown fought with the officer and tried to take his gun. And the popular hands-up storyline, which isn’t corroborated by ballistic and DNA evidence and multiple witness statements, was perpetuated by Witness 101. In fact, just about everything said to the media by Witness 101, whom we all know as Dorian Johnson, the friend with Brown that day, was not supported by the evidence and other witness statements.
In response, many sounded off on Facebook and Twitter slamming Capehart, an African-American, as “a sellout.” The usual race hustlers sounded off, encouraging unrest. An underlying theme was that conservatives generally and Republicans, in particular, are racist.
As 2016 comes closer, some Democrat operatives will drum away at that sub rosa theme. Calumny was used effectively to undermine Mitt Romney in 2012, particularly that he was hard-hearted (he manifestly was not). Many voters are uncomfortable with the idea of voting for candidates who have been demonized as racist, sexist, or uncaring.
If the Republicans are to gain and keep the high ground and win in 2016 they need to seize the initiative now.
A good way to do so is to a pass a new coverage formula for Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Two years ago, the Supreme Court declared that section unconstitutional in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) on grounds that the formula was outdated.
Section 4(b) covers any state or local government where 50 percent of eligible voters were not registered to vote or did not vote in the 1964 presidential election. In essence, it can used to fight discrimination both intentional or coincidental.
The bill was reauthorized in 1970 and 1975 to include results of the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections; however, there was no updated formula when it was reauthorized in 1982 and 2006. A new coverage formula—sponsored by Republicans in both houses—would require that any state or local jurisdiction that does not have 50 percent voter registration and/or 50 percent voter turnout in any election from 2012 forward will be subject to pre-clearance.
The Supreme Court did not invalidate any other part of the act, so there is nothing to stop Congress from passing an updated Section 4(b) formula. It would be in the great tradition of the Republican Party to stand tall for protecting full rights for all.
Passage of a new Section 4(b) formula would not only uphold that tradition, but also deprive race hustlers such as Al Sharpton from claiming that nothing is being done about racial discrimination. Then, every Republican candidate in 2016 can make it clear to his/her constituents just who is taking action to write “finis” to discrimination.
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is ◼ “Presidential Retreats.”