Program

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New Scholarship in African-American History
Richard Valelly, Princeton University; Gilbert Jonas, civil rights activist; William Taylor, Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights

June 22, 2005 // 12:00am

The enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a hallmark of the African-American civil rights movement, will be up for reauthorization in 2007. In a program featuring a new study of the voting rights struggle and another new volume highlighting the role of the NAACP in achieving the Voting Rights Act and many other gains in civil rights for African Americans, the Division of United States Studies program examined the role of political parties and civil society activists in this country's continuing quest for racial justice.

The 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which together made the former slaves citizens and mandated voting rights for all male citizens, were ratified during the first post-Civil War Reconstruction. It was not, however, until what Prof. Valelly called the "second reconstruction" of the 1950s-1960s civil rights movement that African Americans across the nation gained the franchise in fact as well as on paper. The Voting Rights Act eliminated the ability of states and localities to restrict African-American voting rights in areas where voters faced racial discrimination by requiring governmental bodies to obtain pre-clearance from the Justice Department before adopting voting regulations, and by creating a system of federal voting registrars. As Valelly noted, this is perhaps the only democratic country that formally brought formerly excluded groups into the voting citizenry, subsequently took governmental action to push them out, and finally acted once again to include them.

In explaining the failure of the first Reconstruction, Valelly faulted the Republican Party's party-building strategy in the South. The Party had to undertake the quick construction of eleven new Republican parties in the former Confederate states, where they had never existed, and failed to offer any incentives to former Democrats to join. It was therefore unable to counter the more unified and aggressive anti-reconstructionists, who used an anti-black platform to increase their national power and end federal support for Reconstruction – which is why the country needed a "second reconstruction." By contrast, the Democrats of the "second reconstruction" were able to create a coalition between the Democratic Party's New Dealers and black southerners. The bi-racial coalition was able to outmaneuver southern racial reactionaries in Congress. In addition, it had the great advantage of a sympathetic Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren.

Gil Jonas' involvement with the NAACP dates back to 1949, when he created Stanford University's first NAACP chapter. His history of the NAACP gives it the major credit for many of the civil rights movement's victories. The NAACP was created in 1909 and, some 500,000 strong today, has outlasted other notable civil rights groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). It recognized, Jonas reported, that civil rights could not be protected at the local level without federal enforcement. The first reconstruction failed in part because of the removal of federal troops from the South. Even after the NAACP won the1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision, what little desegregation followed frequently required the intervention of federal troops – and gained little momentum until President Lyndon Johnson utilized the 1964 Civil Rights Act to threaten Southern states with withdrawal of federal funds if they failed to desegregate.

William Taylor went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1954, directly after graduating from Yale Law School, and was later staff director of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Drawing upon his long experience in the civil rights movement, Taylor agreed that the NAACP was central to the movement's success and to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Trading reminiscences of the movement, Jonas and Taylor recalled, for example, that Thurgood Marshall had not wanted to take the fight for integration to the North after the Brown decision, fearing that to do so would spread the movement's resources too thinly; and that NAACP leader Roy Wilkins disliked the clergy but recognized, however grudgingly, that its members (such as Martin Luther King) and their organizational base could be important to the movement's success. They also told the audience that Kennedy and Johnson administration officials such as assistant attorney general Burke Marshall and attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach thought that merely including voting rights in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, without strong enforcement provisions, would bring racial equality to the country. Non-governmental organizations such as the NAACP disagreed and, as subsequent enactment of the Voting Rights Act indicated, federal legislators came to recognize that they were correct. Neither piece of legislation, however, ended the racial inequality that still exists in the United States. As Gil Jonas commented, looking back at the impact of statutes, politicians, and organizations such as the NAACP, "Today, the glass is more than half full – and yet it is not full."






Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129

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