By Ryan Granowski, Legislative InternBlack History Month provides us with the opportunity to reflect on how far we have come along the path to liberty and equality. It also stands as a reminder of how much farther we have to go.
Both the national ACLU and its affiliates share a proud history of engagement in the struggle for racial equality. The ACLU brought cases in the sixties attacking the segregation of juries and, in Virginia, brought the landmark case Loving v. Virginia that overturned laws against interracial marriage. Later, the ACLU of Virginia would fight to end the prohibition on elected school boards and engage in legal and grassroots advocacy that, ultimately, would assure black voters in majority-black Brunswick County a fair opportunity to elect a board of truly representative supervisors.
In a perfect world, the re-election of the first black president would signify a firm end to Virginia’s unfortunate, racism-laden past, particularly since President Barack Obama carried the state. Yet, this is not a perfect world and while we’ve moved on down the path, the fight for racial justice is not at an end. For during every session, the General Assembly introduces bills that threaten to slow down the momentum Virginia has gained in recent years towards racial equality.
Many of these bills stem from a strong state history of racial inequity. In the late 1800s, our Constitution was amended to include a life-time ban on voting for anyone convicted of a felony. This was largely an attempt to dilute the black vote, as many African-American men were disproportionately incarcerated at that time. Later revisions of the constitution carried forward this measure of bigotry. Finally, in 2013, when both the Governor and the Attorney General lobbied for the restoration of voting rights by means of legislative act or constitutional amendment, Virginians caught a glimmer of hope that perhaps our Commonwealth was finally making a real move towards equality. The General Assembly, however, refused even to allow Virginians to vote whether to eliminate this remnant of Virginia’s racist past from our constitution, and thus 450,000 people (a disproportionate number of whom are African-American) are left without the right to vote.
In 1902, Virginia amended its constitution and legally implemented a poll tax and literacy test. These actions were again aimed at suppressing the voting power of African Americans. In a victory for racial equality, these amendments were ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and outlawed under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But no victory goes uncontested. Earlier this year, state legislators made a disgraceful attempt to suppress the African American vote. While noted civil rights activist and esteemed Senator Henry Marsh was attending the inauguration of President Obama in D.C., the senate pushed through a discriminatory redistricting plan. The plan would have scattered and packed African Americans into a few overwhelmingly minority districts thereby depriving the 20% of Virginians who are African Americans much of their legislative and political influence.
If suppression by way of gerrymandering wasn’t enough, members of the 2013 General Assembly introduced a large number of voter ID bills the purpose of which was to narrow the types of identification accepted at the polls. The majority of these bills had provisions making the only valid forms of ID those with a photograph. Similar bills have been introduced in other states and have been shown to have a disproportionate impact on the poor, elderly, and minority groups. With this information in mind, it is unfortunate that the Virginia General Assembly still fought so very hard to enact such laws, particularly where there is no evidence of voter fraud at Virginia polls.
Hopefully the day will come when Black History Month can be enjoyed simply for the historic victories in racial equality and without the worry of our Commonwealth slipping back into inequality. But until that time, the ACLU will continue its ongoing mission of preserving civil liberties and defending against actions that threaten them. As progress continues to be made, you can be sure that the ACLU of Virginia will be at the forefront of that forward motion.