CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the aftermath of the tragic Civil War, America adopted the two-line 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, saying:
"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
But racist Dixie pulled every trick to block voting by blacks, trying to keep them powerless, poor and ostracized. Poll taxes and complex literacy tests were imposed -- but not on whites. White-only primaries were established. When all else failed, the Ku Klux Klan used violence to keep blacks away from polls. White Dixie police with dogs and fire hoses attacked marchers wanting to vote.
Human rights groups fought those obstacles -- and the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act finally cured most of this hateful pattern. Minority voting rose spectacularly. But minorities generally vote Democratic, so Republicans still try to hinder black voting through gimmicks such as requiring driver's licenses at polls and closing precincts in minority neighborhoods.
Now conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices have wounded the Voting Rights Act by scuttling its chief enforcement provision: a requirement saying states can't change voting rules without prior approval from the federal Justice Department. A backlash of protest followed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, called it "a dark day for the Supreme Court.... Especially in light of what happened this last election cycle, with Republicans doing everything they could to suppress voting."
In a strong dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called bigoted obstacles to black voting a "vile infection" of democracy. She said past efforts to halt such blockage "resembled battling the Hydra. Whenever one form of voting discrimination was identified and prohibited, others sprang up in its place." The Voting Rights Act was a mighty reform, but now the high court is "backsliding," she indicated.
The New York Times said: "The conservative majority on the Roberts Court issued another damaging and intellectually dishonest ruling on Tuesday. It eviscerated enforcement of the Voting Rights Act...."
Congress can undo this damage by revising the 1965 law. Sen. Reid vowed to do so in the Senate. But House Republicans, who want to stop as many black votes as possible, surely would balk. The only hope we see is for U.S. voters eventually to end GOP control of the House.