Return to Reconstruction?

            From 1865 to 1877 America faced a crossroads. 

The country, fragmented by the Civil War, had to grapple with what to do with freed African American slaves.  Many Republicans wanted a full integration of Blacks into society, including the right to vote and own land, while many Democrats favored the Black Codes, which some viewed as slavery under another name.

            Upset with President Andrew Johnson’s unwillingness to fully accept African Americans, Congress enacted the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which guaranteed male suffrage, fair employment and the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

What resulted was African Americans being elected to political office in the former Confederacy and over 700,000 African Americans registering to vote.

Upset with the progress of recently freed slaves, organizations like the Ku Klux Klan were formed to stop the political momentum of African Americans, and President Rutherford B. Hayes eventually ended the Reconstruction Act, which led to Blacks being removed from political office.

It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that African Americans regained some of their political influence. 

However, after the recent progress of African American politicians like President Barack Obama, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is in danger of the same fate as the Reconstruction Act of 1867, and African Americans must be vigilant so that we do not see a repeat of the approximately 100 years that separated those landmark bills.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires states and municipalities with a history of disenfranchising voters to get approval from the federal government before they redraw voting lines in their area. 

This provision, along with others, did away with literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses which disenfranchised African Americans for almost a century.

Unfortunately, the poll tax has been replaced with voter ID laws.  Grandfather clauses have been replaced with requirements of presidents to show their long form birth certificate.  And if it is left up to some members of the United States Supreme Court, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, the defunct Reconstruction Act will be replaced with the defunct Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Scalia even went so far as to call Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act a “racial entitlement.”  With all due respect, African Americans feel entitled to everything that every other American is entitled to, and that includes the right to vote.

“The formula needs to be updated to reflect the success of Section 5 (of) the Voting Rights Act,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas.  “The country ought—everybody in the country ought to be treated the same…But it will be fascinating to see.”

Although Cornyn is right in his assertion that everybody ought to be treated the same, one only has to look at our current president to see that everyone is not treated the same, so what makes Shelby County, Ala. so special that they get extra-special treatment when that same luxury is not afforded to the leader of the free world.

If the president of the United States is not treated with the same dignity and respect as his White predecessors, what guarantee do regular African American citizens have that they will be treated the same as their White counterparts when they go to the polls to vote.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is still necessary because our commander-in-chief proves that all are not treated equally when it comes to race. 

And although Obama represents how far our nation has come in the area of race relations, the hatred he faces every day is a reminder of how far we have yet to travel.

During Reconstruction, African Americans made tremendous political progress.  However, that progress led to 100 years of regress because some people were threatened by that progress.

What all Americans need to realize is that any threat to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is a threat to the progress we are all responsible for.  We cannot let a small minority of narrow-minded Americans turn that progression into regression. 

Most importantly, we cannot let history repeat itself, because we are still facing the consequences for what our ancestors did wrong in the 19th century.

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