Black History Month 2016: "Civil Rights, Equality, and Justice: Then & Now"

Milestones in LDF’s Fight for Voter Equality

In this first “Throwback Thursday” (#tbt) installment of our “Civil Rights, Equality, and Justice: Then & Now” series for Black History Month 2016, we will take a look at two voting rights milestones in the LDF decades-long fight for voting rights and political participation nationwide.

Then: Smith v. Allwright (Texas, 1944)

Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall

As we look back during Black History Month at LDF’s role in expanding voting rights for African Americans, one case resonates as one of the most seminal: Smith v. Allwright. Now known as the White Primary Case, as described in “Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution” by Jack Greenberg, former Director-Counsel of LDF, Smith is widely considered a keystone of the modern civil rights movement.  

In 1944, Thurgood Marshall—LDF’s founder and, later, the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice—worked with co-lead counsel William Henry Hastie, Jr.—an LDF Board Director and, later, the country’s first African-American federal court judge—to persuade the United States Supreme Court in Smith to overturn a previous decision banning African Americans from voting in the Texas Democratic Party’s senatorial and congressional primary elections.

William Henry Hastie, Jr.
William Henry Hastie, Jr.

As Greenberg notes, at that time, only Texas Democratic primary winners had gone on to be elected to legislative office since 1859. For this reason, Marshall and Hastie successfully showed that African Americans had no meaningful way to participate in the state’s political process—Republicans were, effectively, never going to win office at the time, and African Americans could not participate in selecting the Democratic primary candidates for Congress. This structural impediment to African-American political participation was struck down when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Smith:

“It may now be taken as a postulate that the right to vote in such a primary for the nomination of candidates without discrimination by the State, like the right to vote in a general election, is a right secured by the Constitution.”

Because of this legal victory, the right of Blacks to participate in primaries was established “once and for all,” as Thurgood recounted, with African-American voter registration dramatically increasing as a result. By 1948, the number of Southern Blacks registered to vote grew to between 700,000 and 800,000; by 1952, this number increased to one million.

Now: Greater Birmingham Ministries v. Alabama (Alabama, 2016)

Despite the success of Smith v. Allwright in striking down the white primary, however, for more than 75 years, LDF has had to continue to battle fiercely for voting rights. Judicial and legislative setbacks have necessitated a vigorous, continued push for African Americans’ full equality in the political process.

In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder invalidated the Section 5 preclearance requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. A day after the Court’s decision, Alabama announced that it would enforce its voter photo ID law without the U.S. Department of Justice’s prior approval. In 2014, an analysis by Alabama’s Secretary of State suggested that at least 280,000 registered voters would be barred from voting because of the restrictive new voter photo ID law.

The new photo ID law places substantial burdens on the state’s Black and Latino voters. In order to vote, a person is required to either show photo ID or to be vouched for by two poll workers. Unfortunately, Black and Latino voters are less likely to own photo ID or to be acquainted with poll workers than whites. Further, in October 2015, Alabama made it even more difficult to obtain drivers’ licenses and state ID cards—the most commonly accepted IDs for voting—by dramatically limiting the operating hours of DMV offices to once a month in those counties with the highest percentages of African-American voters.  

In response, LDF, together with Covington & Burling, LLP and local co-operating attorney Ed Still, filed a federal lawsuitGreater Birmingham Ministries v. Alabama—in December 2015. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP. In January 2016, we filed a motion to enjoin the voucher requirement for voters without IDs. Voucher requirements have been used in Alabama to disenfranchise voters of color, and are expressly forbidden by the Voting Rights Act. In its place, LDF asks the Court to allow a voter without photo ID to cast a ballot if they submit a secure form of non-photo ID along with an affidavit that truthfully attests to the reason they lack ID.

“The photo ID law and DMV closures drastically turn back the clock on civil rights in Alabama, and reveal the state’s continued commitment to racial discrimination,” said Deuel Ross, Assistant Counsel at LDF. “As we approach the March 1st Presidential primary, it is critical that our proposed remedy be implemented to ensure that no Alabamian voter is denied their fundamental right to vote.” 

Stay tuned for the next “Throwback Thursday” (#tbt) installment of our “Civil Rights, Equality, and Justice: Then & Now” series for Black History Month 2016, on Thursday, February 12.  Next week, our topic will be police and criminal justice reform.