The United States Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a key component of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional and the local reaction to the decision was mixed.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that section 4 of the act is unconstitutional because it is based on race-based policies of systematic voter discrimination that existed in parts of the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s and it does not recognize the positive changes that have occurred in the decades since.
Wanda V. Neal is president of the Pine Bluff Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“Today’s ruling is turning the clock back,” Neal said. “The Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President [Lyndon] Johnson back in 1965 and it should remain the way it has been. There are still some problems with voting. I have worked the polls and seen the people come to vote.”
Neal said that as a result of the court’s action, Americans are now dependent upon Congress to find an answer to how to make section 4 of the act constitutional.
“I just don’t agree with the decision that was made,” Neal said. “It was just a dagger in the heart. When they walked across that bridge at Selma [Alabama] they weren’t there just because they wanted to walk. They didn’t walk across it for nothing. They did it to bring equality to all people.”
Rev. Jesse Turner, executive director of Interested Citizens for Voter Registration Inc., said that Arkansans concerned about their civil rights should focus on how legislative districts are drawn in the state as opposed to the Tuesday Supreme Court ruling.
“Arkansas is the only state in the South that has not elected an African American to the U.S. Congress,” Turner said. “Every state around us has done so. The main concern for Arkansas voters should be with gerrymandering of legislative districts to prevent African Americans from being elected to Congress.”
Turner said if more black voters choose the Republican party it will stymie the efforts of those who want to diminish their voting power.
“I don’t believe the court decision is going to have as negative an impact as some say,” Turner said. “I believe it is kind of being thrown up as a political football right now. When Congress had an opportunity to strengthen the Voting Rights Act several years ago, it was controlled by Democrats and they failed to put things in place.”
Turner said that even before Tuesday’s ruling, gerrymandering has been used to create voting districts that keep blacks from being elected.
“Right now one party seems to have a chokehold on the African-American vote, so we become threatened when things happen that are not friendly and may pose a threat to black voting rights,” Turner said. “The Democratic party has always drawn the lines in Arkansas for congressional seats and districts. African Americans are concentrated in the first, second and fourth Congressional districts. Because they are split up, they don’t have a fair chance to get someone who is African American elected to Congress.”