How Long Must the South Be “Discriminated Against?”

Oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court over an Alabama county’s challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are underway now, and we’ll have some recaps and analysis later. But for an appetizer, I encourage you to read Alec MacGillis’ TNR article on the continuing battle for voting rights as seen from the perspective of South Carolina physician and accidental activist Brenda Williams. It’s all pretty fascinating, but I am most struck by Dr. Williams’ answer to the perennial question so many white southerners (and conservatives everywhere) ask in self-pitying complaints about the selective strutiny of southern voting rights practices as provided for in Section 5: How long must we suffer this indignity?

I asked Williams how long she thought Section 5 needed to remain in place. “For the next 50 years, probably,” she said. “Until this generation of people dies out. I hate to say it, but it’s true. This generation of people who have some affiliation with what the South used to be. The younger generation, I truly feel, will go beyond race.”

Brenda Williams was born the same year I was, in the same state of Georgia, and thus grew up under Jim Crow. She remembers it (and because she is African-American, suffered because of it), and so, too, do a lot of the movers and shakers in her angrily conservative adopted state. For all the whining about the bureaucratic red tape associated with Section 5, and all the “everybody’s doing it” excuses about voter suppression efforts north of the Mason-Dixon line, she’s asking a virtually unanswerable question of her own: is it really too much to ask that the South continue to walk the walk so long as millions upon millions of citizens personally remember a time when they were denied the most basic rights by their own governments, and their own neighbors? Is it undignified? Sure. But not remotely as undignified as Jim Crow. So let’s stop blaming the victim and do the right thing.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.