Dangers to key section of landmark legislation and popularity of the movie “Selma” a reminder why VRA must be protected, they say

By Corey Arvin
Staff Writer

Many activists are swift to agree that the relationship African-Americans have with the history of the U.S. is complicated at best. But only one of a handful of legislative milestones have a direct impact on the continuity of African-Americans’ quality of life that they have maintained an exceptionally high regard for: The Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As heralded as the Voting Rights Act (VRA) remains, multigeneration activists are worried that the efficacy of the VRA is not fully realized, thus paving the way to threats that could impede minorities’ ability to cast their election-time ballots.

Waudieur “Woodie” Rucker-Hughes sees an impending threat to the VRA taking shape already in the form of a provision that will need support moving forward. Rucker-Hughes is president of the NAACP Riverside Chapter. Year-round, she and the organization are emphasizing voter registration and mobilizing the black community for upcoming elections.

Rucker-Hughes finds adverse changes to VRA provisions distressful, and feels strongly about those who do not participate in the democratic process.

“Every chance (Riverside NAACP) gets, we are registering people to vote and making people aware to vote. There are states trying to withhold voters right now with voter ID laws and actions to Jim Crow,” she said.

Voting rights for minorities were thrown into contention in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 25 in the Shelby County v. Holder case. A 5-4 majority ruled that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional because the formula used to determine coverage for preclearance was antiquated.

The case was Shelby County V. Holder. It was filed against Eric Holder, current U.S. Attorney General. Shelby County is in Alabama, which was once a hotbed for visceral racism and violence. Alabama was often at the center of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Supreme Court ruling was handed the year after conservative Republicans were accused of attempting to suppress voters, particularly minority voters in ethnically diverse jurisdictions during the 2012 presidential election.

“We as African-Americans have an obligation to continue to stand up for what our ancestors went through… If you don’t vote, you don’t count. And if you don’t vote, shame on you if you don’t exercise your God given right,” said Rucker-Hughes.

Activists and historians have credited smaller victories for African-Americans prior to the passage of the VRA for creating a landscape that could be conducive to producing legislation such as the VRA. One of those achievements was Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated education between black and white students.

Lewis “Lew” Vanderzyl, a prominent local educator and previous President of the Riverside Unified School District Board, considered Brown v. Board of Education a significant step forward for African-Americans’ later civil rights advancements, but the Supreme Court decision didn’t have the sweeping effect the VRA had in southern states.

“It was Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson who made the difference and I think it made the difference in the Democratic Party. I think also Earl Warren may have had an influence with him being Chief Justice in Brown v. Board of Education. I don’t think it had the same effect as King and Johnson with the Voting Rights Act,” he said.

Vanderzyl is credited for his steadfast and unflinching support for naming the Martin Luther King High School in Riverside against a slew of racially-tinged opposition in 1998. Vanderzyl credits King as one of his foremost inspirations.

“I think it has been gradual things leading up to the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act didn’t have quite the same impact on the country as it did in the south. Johnson’s prophecy about Democrats possibly losing the south for an entire generation was probably accurate,” he added.

According to Sylvia Martin-James, a local activist, the south was a place of tension and discord, but it was also the birthplace of action and resolutions that reverberated throughout the U.S., benefitting all African-Americans. Martin-James has a storied history of her own as a retired teacher and community leader, who helped establish the Greer Pavilion, a namesake for local, late activists Dr. Barnett Grier and his wife Jean. Martin-James said watching the recently-released movie “Selma” for the first time was a stark reminder of how circumstances of the south greatly contributed to establishing the Voting Rights Act.

“We have to increase the understanding among everyone that thought and actions are put into laws. Many seldomly recognize that strong connection.”

Martin-James said she longs to see younger and older African-Americans leaning upon each other to understand how voting directly impacts their lives, much like she recalls during the civil rights era when churches fostered an environment where members learned to vote. Martin-James continues to inspire blacks to vote, no matter where she happens to be at the time, she said.

“Anywhere I have to be, whether coming or going from a grocery store, wherever someone calls on Sylvia, I start right there.”