One of my personal Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday practices is to reflect on the differences made by his life and work, on how far we've come as a state and nation and on how far we have to go. So two weeks ago, I reflected again.
By any measure, we live in a very different South Carolina and a very different America. We've made great strides in equal access and equal opportunity. But a Jan. 11 story in The Post and Courier reminded me that we still have a ways to go and can't afford to lose precious ground gained through difficult struggle.
The story noted attorney Larry Kobrovsky's planned federal lawsuit to exempt Charleston County from the Voting Rights Act, especially as it applies to the need for states with a history of voter suppression and intimidation to 'pre-clear' any changes in election procedures or voting districts. Mr. Kobrovsky argues that things have changed since the act became law in 1965. He cites Charleston County's vote for President Barack Obama in the last general election and the election of African-American Congressman Tim Scott and Indian-American Gov. Nikki Haley as evidence. To quote Mr. Kobrovsky, 'The reality of 2011 is much different than the early 1960s. There's no basis to say Charleston County voters won't elect minorities. It's a matter of ideology, not race.'
I agree with Mr. Kobrovsky to a point. Congressman Scott's and Gov. Haley's ideological appeal and Tea Party rhetoric made them the choice of white, conservative voters — a rarity for minority politicians. The Voting Rights Act, however, does not focus on the willingness of white, Southern voters to embrace minority candidates. It addressed practices that suppressed and disenfranchised minority voters who once faced literacy tests, property ownership requirements, loss of livelihood, violence and sometimes the loss of their lives if they registered to vote.
I remember those times. When I was a child, I went with an aunt to register in Richland County. She and the white lady in front of her had to pass a literacy test. The white lady was required to read and explain an article in the day's newspaper. My aunt was required to read and interpret a section of the State Constitution.
The days of blunt and violent racial action have thankfully waned, but today's polite and nuanced bigotry is still bigotry. Forty-five years after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, our state has pending legislation that would require voters to show state-issued identification cards at the polls. The need for more than a voter registration card was nonexistent until, as Mr. Kobrovsky noted, minority voters came out in unprecedented numbers to vote for candidate Barack Obama in 2008.
That legislation, as well as the placement of white, conservative voter fraud 'poll watchers' in minority precincts and pre-election mailings to minority voters with a bogus 'warning' that those who owe child support or have unpaid traffic tickets will be arrested at the polls, shows that the Voting Rights Act is still essential to equity and fairness in our state and county.
The issue is not whether minority candidates can be elected, but whether minority votes can still be suppressed — they can. My S.C. House representative, Wendell Gilliard, said it well in his response to Mr. Kobrovsky's proposal: 'It's like turning the clock backwards. He wants to go back to the past, and I think that is so wrong.'
My Charleston Branch NAACP President, Dot Scott, said it well, too: 'We've got a state that even as we speak is trying to put in impediments for folks to vote.'
We've come a long way in securing human and civil rights, but we still need the Voting Rights Act. In spite of progress made, Dr. King's words at a May 15, 1957 Voting Rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial are still true, 'all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic traditions and it is democracy turned upside down.' To say otherwise highlights the truth in something else Dr. King said, 'Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.'
The Reverend Joseph A. Darby is senior pastor of Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church and first vice-president of the Charleston Branch NAACP.