Editor's note: On Feb. 27, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case that may determine the constitutionality of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At issue is local control of voting laws and racial discrimination in elections. In short, many locations (and some entire states) must seek approval from the Justice Department before implementing election-related changes. Shelby County, Ala., which sits just southeast of Birmingham, is one, and it has sued to strike down Section 5. To familiarize yourself with the case, read this SCOTUS blog primer.
Yahoo News asked residents of Shelby County to offer local color and weigh in with their perspectives on the case. Here's one.
FIRST PERSON | If you want an honest, pull-no-punches opinion, ask an old Southern man what he thinks about the government -- the federal government, specifically.
As a born and bred Southern man, I understand this fact. So, when I read about the upcoming Supreme Court case of Shelby County v. Holder that could potentially overturn Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, I went to speak with my elders.
The elders in my small, Shelby County town convene around a table at the local coffee shop, which just happens to sell beer and bourbon. Occasionally, they let me sit in their august presence -- one of my favorite ways to spend a Friday afternoon. Between the eight of them, they have seen and done almost everything -- fought for their country, traveled the world, raised families, lost and won fortunes. Black, white, blue-collar and white-collar, they all gather around a table each afternoon to solve the world's problems while shamelessly flirting with the servers.
They were not shy about sharing their opinion when I brought up Shelby County v. Holder.
"Minority protection? The last I checked, Bull Connor and George Wallace were dead."
"I don't care if a man is black, white, Mexican, or Chinese. Is he Republican or Democrat? Where does he go to church?"
"Are we second-class citizens in our own country?"
That last comment was from a retired U.S. Navy officer, and his comment was the one that truly struck home with me. In the context of the Voting Rights Act, are we second-class citizens? To me, it seems that we are. If we cannot govern ourselves, are we really American citizens? If we cannot decide the method by which we elect our local representatives, apparently, we are not trustworthy.
I'm not an idiot or ignorant of history. I understand the South's troubled past. I understand it better than anyone who did not grow up with the constant reminders of what happens when hate and fear run rampant. How many cities in America have statues in public places depicting dogs attacking little girls? I know Birmingham, Ala., does. I walked through that garden of statues every day as I visited the Jefferson County courthouse. I know my past. I also know that the past is not the present.
How long must we be punished for the sins of our fathers before the rest of the nation realizes things have changed? I'm sick of it. I have lived in this community for 32 years. I've seen black mayors and school board members elected. I've seen people of all races come together to rebuild tornado-ravaged towns. I have not seen one example of voter discrimination. I've never taken a voter competency test.
I've seen bickering and fighting on the campaign trail, but I have never personally witnessed wholesale racial discrimination. In fact, the last time I witnessed anything like what occurred in the South during the '50s and '60s happened was April of '93 -- and it took place in Los Angeles. As far as I know, California, as a state, can make still local decisions regarding the election process without begging the approval of Washington, D.C. (Alabama cannot.)
Racism is not a problem unique to Southern states, Birmingham or Shelby County. It is a problem that plagues an entire nation. While individual racism may be impossible to stamp out, large-scale institutional racism has been eliminated.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 served a purpose and, at the time, it was necessary. That time is over. It's time to stop treating Southern states in particular as ignorant children. It's time to let us decide how we govern ourselves. I am proud that my home county has decided to fight for our right to be treated as equals, but I am not going to get my hopes up. The federal government rarely gives power back to the states once they have taken it and, in the eyes of the rest of the nation, we are still a bunch of racist rednecks just itching to lynch somebody. Who's going to go to bat for us?
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