When America Became a Democracy
The Atlantic|March 2021
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally delivered on the stated ideals of this country. Now it hangs by a thread.
By Vann R. Newkirk II

To My Mother

You were born on July 9, 1964, in Greenwood, Mississippi, delivered into the cradle of white supremacy. Listening to the stories of terror and hope woven into the story of your birth used to frighten me. The year before you entered the world, white supremacists were blocking food aid to Greenwood, trying to starve Black sharecroppers who were demanding their civil rights. You were carried home in the middle of Freedom Summer, right down the street from where Fannie Lou Hamer led a movement that included your neighbors and cousins to demand self-determination. You suckled and wailed, oblivious to your membership in the final group of Black babies born under Jim Crow. There were many such children, born just on the wrong edge of the fight for freedom. But only one of them was my mama.

The marrow of your bones carried generations of struggle, and a year after your birth, that struggle helped bring forth something new. Acceding to the demands of your kin in Mississippi and of many others, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the white folks up in Washington passed the Voting Rights Act. The signing ceremony was in August 1965, just a month after your first birthday. Nobody knew exactly how the act would work, or what would happen when federal agents came down to the state to try to enforce it. But the local paper made things plain and simple: “President Signs Voting Law Declaring That Negroes Free.”

The VRA was historic legislation, but it was still an infant, vulnerable and soft. White leaders in Jackson and other state capitals across the South worked hard to stunt it. White supremacists found new ways to lean on and intimidate Black voters while scrambling to register poor white people. The cotton oligarchs took political offices in local districts and made them countywide offices, hoping to “dilute” new Black votes with white votes. They took other offices, traditionally elective, and made them appointed—then stocked them with white politicians. They gerrymandered districts to sequester Black voters together when it suited them, or to crack apart growing Black political bastions.

But, slowly and painfully, the act cut its teeth. Black activists mobilized the people to seize the franchise. Examiners sent by Washington registered thousands of Black voters directly. Federal observers and Justice Department lawyers rooted out illegal disenfranchisement, often case by case and person by person. Black Mississippians dragged the state to federal court, over and over.

I’ve got pictures of you in the 1970s, in frills and patent-leather dress shoes. You had the same smile in miniature, the smile I now recognize as my own. You had the same eyes, wide and alert, and the same hands, wiry and knobby. You and the Voting Rights Act grew up together. The VRA was extended by Congress in 1970 and then given new purpose and extended again in 1975, when its provisions were broadened beyond preventing Black disenfranchisement to cover non-English speakers. In 1982, when you went off to college, in Coke-bottle glasses, Congress expanded the act’s coverage beyond purposeful, intentional bigotry to consider voting laws that had disparate, discriminatory effects—such as dilution— regardless of intent. The Supreme Court added to the arsenal with decisions that specified the VRA’s reach over redistricting and racial gerrymandering. The act became an integral part of the machinery of politics at every level in every state.

There were growing pains. There always are. Voting-rights opponents poked and prodded, looking for areas where the courts and the Department of Justice were not so vigilant. They continued to fight any law that might make it easier to vote. As ever, Mississippi led the way. The state still made voters register separately for state and municipal elections, a holdover from the “Mississippi plan,” a strategy to deny African Americans the right to vote. When the Justice Department blocked a 1991 Mississippi redistricting scheme because it would have disenfranchised Black voters, a state representative told The New York Times that white politicians privately disparaged the remedy favored by Black legislators as the “nigger plan.” Even as legislation, courts, and the Justice Department secured enormous increases in Black registration and turnout, racial gaps in both measures persisted.

When I think about it all, I think about you, Mama. You had always wanted to be a teacher. You always were a teacher, the bright girl tutoring your siblings and cousins. But educating was more than a profession. Rather, it was halfway between divine purpose and civic duty, part of your drive to help set the world right—a drive I knew was connected to the circumstances of your birth and childhood.

That drive took you to North Carolina. You lived in a house with bad wiring and a bathroom not big enough to sneeze in, commuting 30 minutes across town every morning to teach at your school. You were 24 when you had me, your first child; American democracy, as I think of it, had just turned 23. Democracy is central to America’s idea of itself, but that idea had never been a reality until the VRA. You always reminded me of the precariousness and the novelty of this experiment—of the fact that I had been granted a franchise that wasn’t even yours when you were born. In school textbooks, the black-and-white photographs of civil-rights protests suggested that America had vanquished its demons ages ago. But you told me that the people marching in those photographs were the people who sang in the choir at church and who brought chitlins to family reunions. We were taught that Black folks had been granted a fundamental right in perpetuity, but in truth the boundaries and contours of that right were in flux and constantly being negotiated, renegotiated, and sometimes overruled.

There were reauthorizations and court challenges, gerrymanders and consent decrees. But you were optimistic. So much of what I remember of you comes back to your faith in this country, and your steadiness in contributing to it. My own first time voting was in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president. That was the night the spirit of the VRA came closest to being realized, perhaps. Black turnout was now eclipsing white turnout. I called you from college as you cried on your couch. You were 44, born dispossessed and disenfranchised in a county where only 250 Black adults out of more than 13,000 were registered to vote. It felt as if your own steadfastness had won out against every obstacle.

Of course, there were more obstacles to come. Five years later, in 2013, the Supreme Court heard a challenge from a county in Alabama, arguing that Section 4(b) and Section 5 of the VRA were unconstitutional. Section 5 had forced certain jurisdictions to submit all potential changes in voting laws to the Justice Department or a federal court for review, a process known as “preclearance.” Section 4(b) included the formula that was used to identify the target jurisdictions; a history of Jim Crow– era policies was a key component of that formula. In Shelby County v. Holder, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing for the majority, the Supreme Court ruled that the aggressive, preemptive measures that had been crucial to ensuring the Black vote were no longer warranted— precisely because they had worked so well.

The Court’s reasoning crumbled immediately, as Republicans in North Carolina moved that same week to implement a voter-ID law that activists argued would create a special burden on voters of color. A ruling by a federal appeals court held that the North Carolina law targeted voters like you with “almost surgical precision.” “Once the bonds of Section 5 were released,” Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told me recently, “the rest of the country learned from the South how to engage in voter suppression.” A torrent of voter-ID laws, gerrymanders, and other election changes would steadily erode the Voting Rights Act over the next few years in states both within and beyond the South, including Indiana, Kansas, and Wisconsin. The Republican Party adopted a facsimile of the white-supremacist strategy that had ruled Mississippi.

Then it was 2016 and, well, you know what happened in 2016. But by then you were occupied with more important things. I remember how the fear rattled in your voice when you called me that summer and let me know that doctors had found cancer, and that it had already spread. You fought, as stoically and bravely as you’d done everything else in your life. You continued educating and mentoring as best you could between injections. You stood up to sing in church, even when the tumors broke bones in your spine. You became a grandmother, traveling to hold my son even as medications withered your hands and cracked your skin.

More and more Americans and institutions aligned themselves against your ballot, but you still voted. You intended not only to live, but to live on your own terms, as a citizen. You steeled yourself as an anti democratic movement swept the courts, as the Justice Department’s guiding hand disappeared, as people waited in long lines, as “voter purges” made the news. We watched protests on TV together in the hospital. We talked about whether things were heading toward the electoral confusion of fragile foreign governments, as pundits liked to say, or toward the kind of corrupt state that Mississippi was in 1964. Even knowing what I know, I tried to believe that democracy was too robust for that. You laughed at my naïveté. You’d been there before.

In the fall of 2020, you tried to schedule your chemotherapy appointments so that you’d be able to cast your ballot in person, as you’d always done. When I got a call as I watched the results roll in on Election Night, I thought it was going to be you telling me about how you’d voted, and how closely you were watching on television. The call was a bit more urgent than that. I flew a day later to your side, and held your hands and gave you sips of water as the counts in Georgia and Pennsylvania and Nevada and Arizona all dragged on. We saw the early indications of record turnout, watched news reports about people with a felony conviction voting for the first time, saw the footage of lines at the polls stretching down streets.

You died early in the morning, before we knew who won. You lived 56 years. You witnessed the entirety of what might be considered genuine democracy in America. I fear that era might not last much longer.

II. How the Ballot Was Won

A year before my mother was born, Constance Slaughter- Harvey met Medgar Evers. She hadn’t yet become the first Black woman to get a degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law or the high-powered advocate who sued to desegregate the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol. Back then, she was a teenager, attending a pre-college program at Tougaloo College, in Jackson. Medgar was already the kind of guy people referred to by one name; he was Mississippi’s first NAACP field secretary and perhaps the most famous Black man in the state. “He was the only Black man who would come on TV other than Amos and Andy and all that,” Slaughter- Harvey told me recently. During a school visit in June 1963, Medgar told her and other students some version of a familiar refrain: “Hands that once picked cotton can now pick elected officials.” Days later, Byron De La Beckwith, a White Citizens’ Council member, shot him dead in his driveway.

Slaughter-Harvey decided to dedicate her life to the cause of voting rights. She turned 17 that June and entered Tougaloo soon after. She shifted her ambitions from medicine to law and worked to register Black people to vote in every election. She served as a poll watcher for the legendary Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), helping Fannie Lou Hamer in a 1964 bid for Congress, a bid that died in the primary because fewer than 7 percent of ostensibly eligible Black people were registered to vote. Hamer’s protest run came as civil-rights organizations were preparing for the Freedom Summer project, designed to register as many Black voters in Mississippi as possible, in defiance of Jim Crow.

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