NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
In early 1965, African-Americans who wanted to vote faced any number of barriers: poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests to name just a few. Civil rights workers who tried to help register black voters risked threats, beatings and sometimes murder. The situation in the Deep South was particularly bleak with only 1 percent of eligible blacks registered to vote in places like Dallas County, Alabama, the county seat of which, the riverside town of Selma, became a turning point in the civil rights movement.
In 1965, in March, unarmed demonstrators in Selma tried to march to the Capitol in Montgomery, only to be beaten and teargassed by police on the edge of town. Network television coverage of this Bloody Sunday incident outraged the nation and help lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act four months later.
This week marks 40 years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the measure. Today, we want to hear your stories of that time and look at the act's evolution and its future.
Later in the program, tourists pay a lot to swim with dolphins. What do the dolphins get out of it?
First, four decades of the Voting Rights Act. If you were involved in the campaign for voting rights, give us a call. Our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com. Later in the program, we'll talk about the upcoming battle over reauthorization of many of the Voting Rights Act's provisions.
Joining us now is Clayton Carson. He's a professor of history at Stanford University, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project. He's with us from the studios of Stanford University in California.
Nice of you to be with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.
Professor CLAYBORNE CARSON (Stanford University): Good to talk to you, Neal.
CONAN: As a UCLA undergrad, you were--is it fair to describe you as a foot soldier at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee?
Prof. CARSON: Well, I wasn't officially part of the staff. I was one of their supporters. They had lots of friends-of-SNCC groups around the country and I think at various points I went to the South, but I wasn't in Selma. I had been active since about 1963, and the Selma campaign was the culmination of that period.
CONAN: Well, tell us, what led up to that confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge?
Prof. CARSON: Well, SNCC had been working in Selma since 1963 and had really not made very much headway, primarily because there wasn't a lot of national attention on the right to vote. It was more attention on issues of desegregation. But I think for many people, the right to vote was the central campaign because in many parts of the South, black people were the majority, and in other parts could decide elections. And beyond that, I think, the right to vote was something really fundamental in American history. You know, when you think about at the beginning of American history, only white males with property could vote. And you had successive campaigns to broaden the vote, and the one final piece of that long campaign was to get the right to vote in the Deep South for black people.
CONAN: Obviously, nothing easily won. Let me apologize before I go any further. I misspoke your name. Clayborne Carson; I apologize for that. But let me ask you a little bit about what it was like back then, '63, '64, '65, when you were working on this campaign.
Prof. CARSON: Well, I think that one of the things that you--it's very difficult to understand now is just how difficult it was to get the right to vote and particularly this area in the Black Belt. Lowndes County, for example, was a predominantly black county between Selma and Montgomery and until 1965, there was not one black registered voter in that county and there hadn't been since the 19th century. So we're talking about a political system that was a throwback to the 19th century.
It was maintained by terrorism, that any black person who tried to vote could be attacked, lose their job or even worse killed for that affront to the Southern system of white supremacy. So I think that everyone knew what was at stake, particularly in the Black Belt, and that's where SNCC concentrated its forces. Other groups took on voting rights campaigns where the resistance was less strong, for example, in Southern cities. But SNCC went to the rural areas of the South. And they knew that they were going to face strong opposition, and that was what happened.
I think what happened in '65, of course, was that Martin Luther King entered the picture. SCLC, his organization, decided to launch its own campaign in Selma. And with King's arrival, then you begin to get national publicity and it became a nationally significant campaign. And in that context, it brought together, you know, a coalition that really hadn't existed very much before but certainly didn't exist after that, and that is white liberals ultimately came after the Bloody Sunday attack, Malcolm X was even there at one point in Selma supporting the campaign. So it brought together all the various aspects of the political spectrum in a coalition that would never exist again.
CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. With us here in Studio 3A in Washington is Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and author of "Freedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politics."
Welcome to the program. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Dr. RONALD WALTERS (PhD; The African-American Leadership Institute; University of Maryland): Good to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And we were just hearing Clayborne Carson talk about some of the famous people who were involved, obviously Fannie Lou Hamer; you dedicate your book to Joseph Lowry. But you also emphasize in your book that the organization and the marches and the protests were the product of local people, people who we do not necessarily remember so well. And I was wondering if you could tell us the story of a man named Hartman Turnbow, this from an incident on April 9th, 1963.
Dr. WALTERS: Yes. Well, I tried to go back to recapture some of the danger, some of the sense of sacrifice, some of the drama of ordinary people as a struggle to affect this right to vote. And Hartman Turnbow, of course, was one of those that--I learned, actually, from some of the SNCC people, had been one of the first people to actually step forward and to offer himself to vote in Mississippi. And he was attacked for it. He did step forward at a courthouse there and he--it wasn't successful, but the next day his house was firebombed. And the interesting thing about it was that he came out of his house with both guns blazing and protected his house, actually, from being burned to the ground.
CONAN: You have a transcript of something that he said afterwards. I'm not going to attempt the dialect here. `But it got to working just like the citizenship class teacher told us, that if we would register to vote and stick with it, he says there's going to be some difficulties. He said that when we started we were looking for it. He said, "We're going to have difficulties, going to have troubles, folks are going to lose their homes, folks are going to lose their lives, people are going to lose all their money," and just like he said, all of that happened. He didn't miss it. He hit it, kadap(ph), on the head and it's working now. It won't ever go back to where it was.'
Dr. WALTERS: That's right. I mean, this was an interview with Hartman Turnbow sometime long after this event had happened.
CONAN: Yeah. Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Right now we're talking about memories of 40 years ago and more, the campaign for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Later on in the program we'll talk about its relevance today. But let's get Kathy on the line. Kathy calling us from St. Louis, in Missouri.
KATHY (Caller): Yes. Hello.
CONAN: Hi, you're on.
KATHY: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
KATHY: I worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965. There was a summer program where volunteers, mainly college volunteers, went down and registered people to vote. So when I was there, and by there I mean Southampton County, which as many people know is Nat Turner country, the Voting Rights Act was passed and it was so--from our perspective, things changed drastically in the period of a couple of weeks. I remember 40 years ago so vividly because I think the experience was so profound for those of us who were privileged to have been a part of history, I remember so many things.
One particular thing I remember is we organized pickup vans to pick voters up and take them into the courthouse to vote where we naturally met a lot of resentment, but it was now the law of the land and people knew what they had to do. We stopped by one morning to get a woman who I think was about 90 years old, African-American woman who was sitting in a folding chair on her lawn. We picked her up, helped her in the car and she said, `I've been waiting all my life to do this.' And we said, `Well, today's the day,' and it was. And I still get very emotional thinking about those times.
And one more memory--I don't want to take too much time because I have a lot of them--but we stayed with African-American families, there were four of us, and one of us had a car that was a turquoise Volkswagen, and in 1965 a turquoise Volkswagen stood out.
KATHY: So we were followed quite a bit. But we stayed exclusively with black families because that was the thing to do and nobody else really would have us. And the black families were so courageous and so brave. People threatened to cut off their livelihoods if they housed us. And to a person, everyone stood up for us. In fact, in one particular situation, which I won't take the time to go into detail about, when I look back, I realize my life was really in danger. It was saved by a black gentleman. There's no doubt in my mind. And they risked a tremendous amount.
CONAN: Clayborne Carson, let me ask you about that. When President Johnson spoke to Congress about this, he said it was the courage of black people, like Kathy's talking about, that made this possible.
Prof. CARSON: Well, I think that's particularly important to realize that Lyndon Johnson didn't want to introduce voting rights legislation in 1965. He had other parts of his program that he thought were more important, the Great Society programs. He needed to votes of Southern politicians. And I think that it was one of these situations where the momentum from the Southern struggle was just too strong for him to resist, that ultimately he wanted to pass voting rights legislation, he knew the importance of that, but it was really the thrust of these Southern demonstrations that forced his hand and brought about voting rights in 1965.
CONAN: Kathy, thanks very much for being with us today.
KATHY: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. And, Clayborne Carson, we appreciate your time as well.
Prof. CARSON: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford University, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project, and he joined us from the Stanford studios in California.
We're telling your stories of the Voting Rights Act, which turns 40 this week. After the break, we'll also turn to the act's future. What was your experience? We're taking your calls at (800) 989-8255.
It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're remembering the Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Johnson 40 years ago this week in the wake of months of civil rights protests and bloody crackdowns. Were you involved? Did the Voting Rights Act affect your life? Give us a call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com.
Our guest here in the studio is Ronald Walters, author of "Freedom is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politics," also a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
Let's get another caller on the line. This is Matt. Matt calling from San Rafael, California.
MATT (Caller): Hi.
MATT: I was a photographer during the '60s in Mississippi and Alabama and other places, and I just mounted a 16--a 17-print banner print show at the Department of Justice last week. They had a celebration of the Voting Rights Act, and they hung these banners around the Great Hall. But I lived with Hartman Turnbow part of the summer of 1964 and I remember--I wasn't present when they tried to firebomb his house, but I remember the incident well. And Hartman apparently appeared on the front porch in the moonlight in his white nightshirt, blasting away into the bean field with his shotgun. And there were cries of pain were heard from the bean field and the would-be firebombers drove away in their pickups. And the next day, they found a license plate in the bean field which turned out to be the license plate of a Holmes County deputy sheriff.
At any rate, Hartman went down to report this and he was arrested for arson; that is, for trying to set fire to his own home.
CONAN: Yeah, Ron Walters, did you know about that license plate?
Dr. WALTERS: No. This is just so rich in terms of an on-the-spot recollection. But I did know that they tried to arrest him for trying to set fire to his own house.
MATT: Hartman had the most wonderful command of the English language, which he used as freely as an Elizabethan poet. And in describing it, he said, `Well,' he said, `I went down to the circus--clerk's office to report the fire and they arrested me for arsenic.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
MATT: He was a wonderful man and absolutely fearless.
CONAN: Matt, thanks very much. We appreciate that.
CONAN: One of the earlier callers, Ron Walters, talked about the effect of the Voting Rights Act after it took effect. What was it like throughout the South?
Dr. WALTERS: Well, you have to think about 1964, and at that time there were only--something like 18 percent of blacks voting in the entire South. Four years later--just four years later, you had a registration rate of over 50 percent in the South. So you go from 18 percent to over 50 percent in four years. That's just extraordinary. You had less than a hundred black elected officials. You had something like 78 in the South at that time. And four years later, you're beginning to get close to 130; 50 black elected officials in four years in the South. So it had an immediate electric effect on political participation in places like Selma and other places where blacks were not registered, all of a sudden people wanted to make the Voting Rights Act come alive.
CONAN: Let's listen to a recorded telephone conversation. I'm sure you're aware of the LBJ tapes. This was recorded in a conversation between the president of the United States and Martin Luther King Jr., and they discussed their strategy for voting rights. This is in January of 1965.
(Soundbite of recorded telephone conversation)
Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING Jr.: It's so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers in the South and it will be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate white vote that will really make the new South.
President LYNDON JOHNSON: That's exactly right. I think it's very important that we not to say...
CONAN: Hard to hear, but Martin Luther King there saying that it'd be--it's so important to get Negroes registered to vote and it would be this coalition of Negro voters and--in large numbers and this coalition that would then change the South. Well, the South has certainly changed.
Dr. WALTERS: Well, you're right about that. It's very interesting because by 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected president with precisely that coalition, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, like Reverend Walter Fauntroy, for example, were calling this the new arthritic of power in the South, this coalition of blacks and moderate whites.
So this coalition, of course, was to predominate--it still predominates and yet, of course, it's been overrun by the change in political ideology on the part of so many whites in the South.
CONAN: And this obviously did not happen at the benefit of the--President Johnson's party. This has become at the time that he was elected, it was the solid Democratic South. It is now the solid Republican South.
Dr. WALTERS: That's right. And, you know, he was a very courageous president because he knew that when he signed the Voting Rights Act and his words was that he's probably going to lose the South for a generation. And so--as a Southerner, him facing this prospect, that took tremendous courage for him to face down his own friends and do this, to do the right thing.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Taylor. Taylor calling us from Tallahassee, in Florida.
TAYLOR (Caller): Hi. How are you? I actually just kind of had a question. I was wondering, I go to Florida State University, a very active college. It's wonderful to be here. But I'm also from a place where we didn't learn much about the history that really went into voting rights, even from women, then to the African-American acts that were passed, the struggle that went through it. And I was wondering if anyone was trying to make it more known to children what a struggle it was and what a privilege and right it is to--at this point to be able to go and vote.
CONAN: Ronald Walters?
Dr. WALTERS: I don't think that there is as much in the curriculum of government in K-through-12 that really needs to be--I think we really are still in the dark about this. We still haven't come up to date about it. And this is part of the general neglect, I think, that we have in our curriculum about what happens in terms of civil society and civil affairs. We need to go back to this, and we used to do it a long time ago when certainly African-American politics was not included. We used to have civics. We need to go back to a notion of civics that is far more comprehensive than it is today.
CONAN: And since he was not going to say it, let me say it; you can go buy a copy of "Freedom is Not Enough," which is his new book on the subject.
TAYLOR: OK. Great. Thank you so much.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Taylor. Good luck at school.
TAYLOR: Thank you.
CONAN: `Do we know'--this an e-mail question from Ruth Foley(ph) in Palo Alto, California. `Do we know the percentage of blacks who vote these days? Is it different from Caucasians and other groups?'
Dr. WALTERS: Well, you know, one of the interesting myths is that blacks don't vote. But it is dead wrong. When you look at one of the fulfillments of the Voting Rights Act, it is that blacks now are very close to whites in terms of the turnout. In the 19--well, the 2000 election cycle, the difference between blacks and whites in terms of voting registration was less than 3 percent. In terms of voting, it was around 2 percent or more. So this is very close. It increased somewhat in the 2004 election cycle, but still you're talking about a situation where today black voting is really roughly about the same as white voting, given the election.
CONAN: Your book focuses on presidential politics in particular. Back in 1984, you were involved in Jesse Jackson's campaign. How did that change things, do you think?
Dr. WALTERS: Well, I think that one of the arguments I make in my book is that most of the scholarship and the concern about the Voting Rights Act has been with respect to how it has managed to create districts from which blacks could run and be elected to office. And today we have over 9,500 African-American elected officials as a result of that. But I argue that it's also facilitated African-American turnout in presidential elections and blacks have often made the difference in presidential elections.
In 1984 and 1988, blacks were very excited to participate in presidential politics because of Reverend Jackson. It was a way that they used to fight back against what they opposed about the policies of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. So they took that. And I argue that it's still a relevant political strategy for African-Americans to use presidential politics in the 2000 year and beyond, but to perfect it. And so as the 2004, we had the presidential candidates of Carol Moseley Braun, Reverend Al Sharpton and so I compare them against that to Reverend Jackson and I find that not only were the things they did different, but the context was different. This context, the Democratic Party and these candidates wanted to have someone who was competitive and that really trumped everything else. So I say that, `Well, the two things you have to have going for you if you're really going to do a black presidential candidacy, you've got to have the people, you've got to do some other things right, and you have to have the right context.'
CONAN: The fight for minority access to the polls is hardly solely history. Last week, Justice Department officials filed a lawsuit against the city of Boston alleging that city's election divisions discriminate against non-English-speaking voters. Donovan Slack, a Boston Globe reporter who covers city elections, joins us now from that paper's offices in Boston.
Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. DONOVAN SLACK (Boston Globe): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: What are the charges against the city?
Ms. SLACK: There are several. The federal government is charging that the city has not translated enough of its election materials into other languages, namely Spanish; that they have not provided enough bilingual poll workers. But perhaps more disturbing is their contention that the city has actually allowed the coercion, influencing and, in fact, ignoring of certain ballot choices of limited English speakers in this city.
CONAN: Now how did this come to the attention of the federal government?
Ms. SLACK: Well, I think it started a few years ago when the city tried to transition to the electronic voting machines and we had several community groups out at almost every single poll, really observing very closely for one of the first times, exactly what was happening out in the field. And they came back with a number of reports, they brought them to the city; I guess they weren't happy with the city's response. They took them to the state, and finally to the federal government which brought its suit just on Friday.
CONAN: And a suit under the Voting Rights Act.
Ms. SLACK: Absolutely.
CONAN: Boston Mayor Thomas Menino says he can't wait to fight this in court.
Ms. SLACK: Yes. He's insisting that there's absolutely nothing wrong going on at polls in Boston. And, you know, it would appear that we have certainly had reports over the last couple of years of things going horribly wrong.
CONAN: And what's the likely outcome, do you think?
Ms. SLACK: Oh, the likely outcome? It's hard to say, but I do know that the Justice Department did tell us yesterday that they have never lost a similar case to the one that is against Boston in the past 20 years.
CONAN: So--well, I guess there's a first time for everything, but on the other hand, you might want to bet on the other side.
Ms. SLACK: (Laughs) Our mayor has an uphill battle ahead of him.
CONAN: Donovan Slack, thank you very much.
Ms. SLACK: No problem. Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Donavan Slack covers local elections for The Boston Globe and joined us from their offices.
And, Ron Walters, is this an illustration of why you think the Voting Rights Act is still relevant today?
Dr. WALTERS: It is, and when you look, Neal, at what happened in the 2000 election cycle and 2004, we've had an opportunity to sort of look up underneath the skirts of the democratic process and to see a lot of things happening that we thought actually were taken care of by the Voting Rights Act, and they range all the way from things like voter intimidation to missing ballot boxes to corruption of voter lists to all sorts of things that we thought were not happening. And so this is clear that when you look at the Voting Rights Act--that it bears the heavy weight of correcting many of these things, but I must say that we also have today HAVA, the Help America Vote Act, which was passed to take care of some of these things, and we also have the National Voter Registration Act. So we're much stronger in terms of law today, than we were 40 years ago. What we still lack is vigorous enforcement.
CONAN: We're talking about the 40 years of the Voting Rights Act and about its future. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Some parts of the Voting Rights Act are set to expire in 2007 unless they are reauthorized by Congress. And joining us now to talk about the future of the Voting Rights Act is Abigail Thernstrom, vice chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights. She's with us from her home in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Nice to have you on the program.
Ms. ABIGAIL THERNSTROM (Vice Chair, US Commission on Civil Rights): Thank you very much for having me.
CONAN: You wrote in an article you co-wrote in The Wall Street Journal--it says, `In 1965, every part of the act made perfect sense. No longer,' you say.
Ms. THERNSTROM: That's correct. And, by the way, I do want to compliment the previous speakers. I thought both Clay Carson, whom I know well, and Ron Walters did a superb job retelling that very moving history. And nobody should for a minute think that that, in 1965, wasn't a very necessary and beautifully designed act, which had the immediate impact that your caller Kathy said. We're a long ways from 1965 now; 40 years later, the South has changed. America has changed. And most of the act is permanent, but there are provisions that were passed on a temporary emergency basis. They were supposed to expire in 1970. Forty years later, the emergency is over. We don't have a permanent emergency when it comes to the questions, to the issues, that those provisions were supposed to cover, or the central one of those provisions was supposed to cover, and it's time to let it expire. We have many other ways of combating electoral discrimination.
And Professor Walters referred to Florida a minute ago, but, of course, all the hanging chads and so forth had nothing to do with the Voting Rights Act. None of the counties involved were covered by what is called the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. That's the provision that requires jurisdictions originally covered in '65 and some that were added later to go to Washington to get approval of every voting change. Florida was not covered in '65. A few counties were subsequently covered. But the Florida debacle had absolutely nothing to do with the Voting Rights Act.
CONAN: Ronald Walters, do you agree?
Dr. WALTERS: No, I don't agree. I think--and out of great respect for Abigail, whom I know, and her opinion about it, I think that when you look at pre-clearance and the need to continue pre-clearance--that is to say that if a state wants to change its election law, it has to have it approved by the Department of Justice. You look at a state like Georgia, for example. Right now, Georgia's changing its voter identification requirement from 17 pieces of identification down to five. It wants to do that. There are many people in the state who argue that this will make it much more difficult. That has to be discussed, and the way to do that is to have a discussion in the Justice Department, and, therefore, the continued need for pre-clearance.
Again, one of the sections likely to expire is the language provision. Hispanics are just now beginning to become citizens in large numbers, and they need language assistance because, as a matter of fact, studies have shown that's one of the key things to initiate the vote for them.
And then, finally, there is this question of observers. In 2000, the NAACP started to receive irregular reports on the afternoon of the vote. I called the Justice Department; they said that they didn't have any observers in the state of Florida. And I said, `Why?' `Well, because election officials there have to request them.' So it seems to me that there's still a need--if you had had election observers in the state of Florida, or any other state, covered by the law, there far less likely to have many of these egregious provisions take place.
CONAN: When we come back--hold on, Abigail.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Yeah.
CONAN: We have to take a short break, but we'll let you have a chance when we come back from a short break, as we continue our conversation on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its continued relevance. If you'd like to join the conversation, (800) 989-8255. We'll also look at the future of dolphin attractions.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. The National Archives today released more documents written by Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. The papers date back to Roberts' time at the Department of Justice during the Reagan administration and pertain to such issues as civil rights. And researchers who challenged the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker have made an about face. The skeptics were finally convinced of the bird's existence after hearing sound recordings. You can hear details of those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.
Coming up on Thursday, the TALK OF THE NATION movie awards continue. This time it's your selections for best teen movie ever. Bring it on. We can hardly wait for your brief e-mails saying anything about why your nominee deserves the fame. Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you'll include your phone number, possibly you'll pump up the volume and join us on the air. Don't be clueless about it. Join us for the best teen flick of all time Thursday on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tomorrow, different strategies for building children's self-esteem--trying to balance praise and high standards. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.
Today we're continuing our conversation on the future of the Voting Rights Act, which turns 40 this week. Our guests are: Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland; also with us, Abigail Thernstrom, vice chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights. Before the break, we were talking about parts of the law that need to be reauthorized by Congress if they're going to be extended.
And, Ms. Thernstrom, you wrote in your article in The Wall Street Journal, `Racially homogeneous and uncompetitive districts, which make biracial and bipartisans' coalitions unnecessary and will continue to elect mostly far-left minority candidates'--how does the Voting Rights Act contribute to that?
Ms. THERNSTROM: Let me answer that in a second. Let me just very quickly answer Ron Walters. Voter ID in Georgia--there is another provision that a permanent provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 2, allows any plaintiff to go into court and charge electoral discrimination, and nothing's happening to that. The language-assistance program provisions--nobody's arguing they should go away. And again, with respect to Florida, most of Florida is not covered by the emergency provisions. Only five counties are. And they were not the counties that were involved in the 2000 debacle. The--Florida was not initially covered at all.
But look, what's happened is, with the--I mean, there's been an odd evolution of the Voting Rights Act, and it became an instrument, over time, for the Justice Department particularly, to some extent the DC District Court and all other courts in the land who were closed when the question was pre-clearance of federal approval of voting changes--it became an instrument to force jurisdictions to draw as many what the ACLU called max-black districts as possible; in other words, to force egregious racial gerrymandering, resulting in what have often been called bug-splat districts. And when you draw--when you have race-driven lines that go down a highway and scoop up a little enclave of black homes and then go wandering off in another direction and scoop up another little enclave, and so you've got, you know, these wild-looking districts that are completely race-driven, what happens is you drain black voters from all surrounding districts. They become overwhelmingly white, and they become, in the South particularly, very solidly Republican.
And, you know, the Republicans have been laughing all the way to the political bank with these bug-splat districts, these race-driven districts. And, indeed, after the 1990 census, when the software became very sophisticated, they were working very closely with the Republicans--that is, with the civil rights groups--to create the maximum number of majority minority districts because it was in the interest of Republicans. I don't think those districts are in the interests--in the public interest, in the interest of black and Hispanic voters, in the interest of any other voters.
CONAN: Ronald Walters?
Dr. WALTERS: Well, I think that--Abigail calls this an odd evolution; of course, it is really not. The courts, I think, considered whether or not political participation was something that should be promoted as a real event, and what they said was that a Section 2 really means that not only do you have the opportunity to vote, but that vote ought to count. So they went back to, really, a 1916 standard, a case there--had nothing to do with blacks, but here we're talking about having the vote count. So they said, `Well, in order to do that, let's create single-member districts'--nothing odd about that--`in order for blacks to have a right to vote and to elect black officials.'
If you didn't have these minority majority districts, what it means is that we would have parliaments in this country, political institutions, that would have very few blacks. And I'm not sure that's something that anyone would like to see. This is not racial gerrymandering. It is racial representation. It just so happens that Republicans have understood this, I think, somewhat better than Democrats. What I think blacks and others have tried to do is to keep even Republicans from stacking the districts so high that you had a lot of excess votes in them. But I think the proposition that blacks ought to be able to vote for their own representatives is a Democratic outcome, and I think that we all should applaud that.
CONAN: Let's get...
Ms. THERNSTROM: Well, Section 2 is permanent legislation. That is not up for reauthorization, so that's not even a question. Now look, when you talk about racial representation, you're really talking about office holding by minorities, because otherwise, you have to admit that whites can represent blacks and blacks can represent whites, and I'm not sure, as an empirical fact, that you can claim you know how many black elected or Hispanic elected officials there would be if you had more districts in which there were biracial, multiethnic coalitions, because black candidates tend not to run in districts in which they don't feel, you know, that the outcome is guaranteed. Well, if you don't try to run in integrated districts, there is no way you're going to win. You have to run in order to win.
I think there are white voters today and for quite a while--have been more than willing to vote for black candidates. That's how Doug Wilder got elected in Virginia, I understand by only a small margin. That's how Andrew Young first got elected to Congress in a majority white district, how, you know, David Dinkins got elected in New York, and we're probably going to have a statewide race with Harold Ford running for the Senate in Tennessee, and I put my money on Harold Ford.
1965 is 40 years ago. America has moved on, I'm telling you.
Dr. WALTERS: I'm sorry, Abigail, but, you know, the data simply doesn't hold up. Keith Reeves has just published a book on white voting for black candidates, and his findings are that the normal situation is that whites in America still are not voting for black candidates. So it's not just a question of blacks not running in these districts; they don't run because they don't think they can win, and there's pretty good empirical evidence on their side that they can't.
This situation is not too difficult. The presumption that whites can represent blacks is certainly one I think I would accept. The question is whether or not they can represent blacks better than black representatives, and whether or not we would like to have political institutions that look like America. And I think that, given this situation, what we know is that, from the record, blacks have represented blacks better, and our institutions are beginning to look like this country's founders intended it to be.
CONAN: Abigail Thernstrom, I'm sure you have a response. This is an argument that's going to go on for the next year, at least. We appreciate your being with us today.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Abigail Thernstrom, vice chair of the US Commission on Civil Rights.
And, Ronald Walters, we thank you for your time today as well.
Dr. WALTERS: Good to have been with you.
CONAN: Ronald Walters' new book is called "Freedom Is Not Enough: Black Voters, Black Candidates and American Presidential Politics."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.