Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act
and the Transformation of American Democracy
by Gary May
Basic Books, 336 pages, $32, hardcover
Gary May's compelling book about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is both timely and deeply historical. Its title alludes to an oft-quoted remark by Martin Luther King Jr. about the slow yet inexorable nature of social justice movements: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." King's observation, in turn, succinctly paraphrases an 1853 sermon by Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker, who evoked the imagery of an arc of moral progress "bending toward justice" in the distant, unseeable future.
University of Delaware history professor May's choice of title aptly expresses the book's premise: that the unfolding story of racial minorities' - particularly African Americans' - fundamental right to vote is "one of continuing struggle, of reform and reaction, advance and retreat." May challenges current assumptions that Barack Obama's presidency is proof that the United States has entered an era of "post-racial" progress, and that protective laws such as the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary. Oral arguments at the Supreme Court this term in Shelby County v. Holder
(pending as No. 12-96) underscore this mind-set; Justice Antonin Scalia referred to the Voting Rights Act as an example of a "racial entitlement" and criticized Congress's unanimous vote to renew its Section 5 as pernicious and worthy of suspicion. (The section contains the pre-clearance requirement for procedural changes in "covered jurisdictions" that have been found to have engaged in egregious voting discrimination.)
May traces the beginning of the voting rights "arc" back before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, when only five states allowed black men the right to vote. As the Civil War and then the Reconstruction Era sparked a backlash of racial terrorism, political repression, and disenfranchisement in Southern states, legislators of all political parties adopted a number of voting prerequisites to circumvent the 14th and 15th amendments: literacy tests, poll taxes, residency and property requirements, and - most infamously - a "grandfather clause" that effectively exempted white men and their male heirs from literacy tests and property requirements if they had voted prior to January 1, 1867. As a result, May writes, "By the early twentieth century black disenfranchisement ... was complete throughout the South, and it remained almost unchanged for the next sixty years."
Against this background, May chronicles the emergence of the voting rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a long and assiduous effort rather than a series of singular, dramatic events. He astutely details the symbiosis of galvanizing leadership and unheralded grass roots activism in all social justice movements, and balances descriptions of spectacular pivotal moments with recognition of the lonely, unexamined roads leading up to them. May gives ample attention to the most famous leaders and events leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act (for example, the bravery of John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette in the Selma, Alabama, march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965), but he also focuses on the role of lesser-known activists.
The second half of the book examines in fascinating detail the passage of the law itself and its aftermath. May is careful to include and address critiques of the act from political and legal perspectives.
The final chapters explain why the current "bend" of the arc is perhaps inevitable, given the strengths and weaknesses of addressing systemic injustice through one piece of legislation. Defenders of the Voting Rights Act will need to exercise continuing vigilance if May is to be proved correct that voting rights progress will eventually result in meaningful enfranchisement in a multiracial society.
Margaret M. Russell is a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. In 2011 she and her daughter marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge as part of an annual civil rights pilgrimage led by Congressman John Lewis.