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Berman: How LBJ’s crowning legislation on voting rights is being gutted


The Texas Book Festival, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, is showcasing its largest number of authors in its history with more than 300 writers covering every imaginable topic. One of those authors, Ari Berman, will talk about his book, “Give Us the Ballot,” which chronicles the last 50 years of the voting law and current efforts to turn it back in Texas and elsewhere. Editorial writer Alberta Phillips will moderate a panel with Berman on Sunday in the C-Span2/Book TV tent. For the American-Statesman guide to the festival, go to statesman.com/books. Below are excerpts from an interview this week with Berman:

American-Statesman: Your book focuses on the last 50 years of voting in America, which covers the period of time from when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act up to the present. Why do you think it was important to write about voting rights during that time frame?

Berman: So many accounts of the civil rights movement end with the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). That’s where my book begins. The VRA didn’t end the debate over voting rights; it started a new one. That’s why it’s so important to document the five decades of history after the law passed.

On the 50th anniversary of the VRA, we’re seeing new debates over voting rights and new efforts to restrict access to the ballot in places like Texas. The revolution of 1965 spawned an equally committed counter-revolution, which is far too often overlooked. I wanted to document both the tremendous progress the country has made under the VRA but also the consistent and unyielding efforts to roll back that progress.

Would you name some of the people you interviewed for the book?

I interviewed more than 100 people for the book. My subjects included high-profile civil rights activists from the 1960s, like John Lewis and Andrew Young. Top-level officials from the LBJ Administration through the Obama Administration, like former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and many heads of the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice, which enforced the Voting Rights Act. Members of Congress, such as G.K. Butterfield from North Carolina, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Congresswoman Terri Sewell from Selma. And lesser-known civil rights activists, lawyers and policymakers who have played pivotal roles in the voting rights struggle.

Your book talks about LBJ’s record in the Congress and how he surprised his critics on the left and supporters on the right? Would you explain and give some examples?

Johnson voted against every civil rights bill in Congress from 1937 to 1956. But when LBJ became president, he didn’t have a change of heart so much as a change of circumstances and constituency. He no longer represented just Texas, but the entire country, and was therefore freer to do what he believed.

LBJ always knew about the problem of discrimination, from his time teaching at a segregated Mexican-American school in Cotulla, and believed the ballot would give people the opportunity to change their circumstances. After the brutality of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, President Johnson moved very quickly to pass the VRA and gave an incredibly moving address to a joint session of Congress. He viewed the law as his most important accomplishment.

What is your view of what the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to abolish the requirement from the Voting Rights Act that certain jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination get pre-approval for voting changes?

It will go down as one of the worst decisions of the Roberts Court. Chief Justice John Roberts said voting discrimination was largely a thing of the past, but we’ve seen just the opposite following the decision.

Laws that were previously blocked under the VRA, such as Texas’s strict voter ID law, were allowed to go into effect after the Shelby County v. Holder decision, and many longtime voters were turned away from the polls in 2014 as a result.

A month after the Shelby decision, North Carolina passed a sweeping rewrite of its election laws that repealed or curtailed every voting reform in the state that encouraged people to vote.

And more recently, Alabama — the birthplace of the Voting Rights Act — passed a strict voter ID law and then closed 31 DMV locations across the state, particularly in majority-black counties where people once died fighting for voting rights.

What is the prognosis in your view for passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015, a bipartisan bill that aims to restore the Voting Rights Act back to health?

It’s not likely to happen in this Congress, unfortunately. The VRA has always had strong bipartisan support. The 2006 reauthorization of the act passed 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate and was signed by President George W. Bush. But elements of the Republican Party have since become more hostile to the law, especially following President Barack Obama’s election.

I think it’s critically important for lawmakers to understand that the fight for voting rights didn’t end in 1965 and the work of the VRA is far from done. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book.


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