Evolution of civil rights

This past summer, I happened to be in Washington, D.C. for an internship conference on the days the Supreme Court gave its rulings in several landmark civil rights cases, including Shelby County v. Holder and U.S.v. Windsor.

Shelby County v. Holder was about the preclearance sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act was passed almost 50 years ago in order to protect minority voters, particularly in the South, from being disenfranchised at the polls. For the century following the Civil War, many southern states and voting districts devised cunning methods to limit black suffrage, such as imposing poll taxes and literacy tests.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was created as a way to combat systematic voter discrimination in states with such a history. It was a landmark piece of legislation in the civil rights movement and was reauthorized by Congress several times and ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court several times.

U.S. v. Windsor was about the “one man, one woman” definition of marriage under the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The law stated that the federal government would not recognize the validity of same-sex marriages, even if the couple lived in a state that did recognize the marriage.

In June, during the last week of the Supreme Court’s 2012 term, the other interns and I sat in the conference room of a building on H Street, glued to our Twitter feeds to see how the Court would rule.

Jan. 25, the Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which provided the formula to determine to which states preclearance applied, was unconstitutional.

We were shocked. How could they strike down the core of this important piece of legislation?

Jan. 26, the Court ruled in U.S. v. Windsor that section three of the Defense of Marriage Act, which stated that the federal government only recognized marriages between heterosexual couples, was unconstitutional.

We were shocked. What a great day for the gay rights movement to have the government on their side!

But after the shock of these rulings wore off, I noticed an eerie juxtaposition: on Tuesday, the Court overlooked the rights of one minority group; while on Wednesday, the Court affirmed the rights of another minority group. I couldn’t help but wonder: do civil rights no longer equal civil rights?

In an interview with MSNBC last year, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said that “marriage equality is the civil rights issue of our generation.” I believe she is correct in seeing the gay marriage debate is indeed the most prominent civil rights issue today. But I worry that other civil rights issues, which are still relevant today, are losing their political support.

This is especially noticeable when one considers that both Shelby County and Windsor were 5-4 decisions, split along partisan lines, with Justice Anthony Kennedy serving as the deciding swing vote.

I applaud Justice Kennedy and others for standing up for the rights of LGBT people, but I think those same people should be reminded that civil rights should always be at the forefront, not just when it’s popular today or tomorrow.

Welch is a junior majoring in political science.

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