Last week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case challenging a major provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That provision, Section 5, holds that before making changes to voting procedures, jurisdictions in all or part of 16 states must convince the federal government that the changes won’t amount to “denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” Despite the law having been repeatedly upheld by Congress—with overwhelming support as recently as 2006—Shelby County, Alabama, argues that the law is outdated, unnecessary, and unfair.
After oral arguments and questioning made the position of the Court’s conservative Justices clear, it’s widely assumed that Section 5 will be struck down, in what Court-watcher Linda Greenhouse characterizes as an all but certain “evisceration” of the Voting Rights Act. For those seeking to understand the case, its place in the Roberts Court’s pattern of rulings on the “sordid business” of race, and how it’s happened that the Court now seems poised to give itself a power that should reside with Congress, Greenhouse’s reporting is a great place to start.
Here though, we’d like to consider a recent study of the Voting Rights Act that shows its effects to have been even broader than is often understood. The Act’s standing as a watershed moment for the extension of civil rights in this country is of course a given, but in a new book, economic historian Gavin Wright shows that the VRA was also extremely significant to the advancement of economic equality in the covered regions. In Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, Wright outlines the commonly overlooked connections between the civil rights movement and the struggle for economic justice, arguing that breakthroughs like the VRA were an economic boon to African Americans with no commensurate setback for southern whites.
A key contribution of Wright’s book is the simple reminder that, on the ground and in the moment, economic concerns were always part of the push for equal rights:
From the bus boycotts of the 1950s to the sit-ins of the early 1960s, demands for equal access to services were almost always coupled with demands for jobs providing those services. In December 1955 the Montgomery Improvement Association called for “employment of Negro bus operators in predominantly Negro residential sections,” a demand that was actually quite radical for the time because of the quasi-legal powers bus drivers held. Flyers like the one [pictured below] from Warrenton, North Carolina, were circulated during public accommodations disputes throughout the region. The appeal for “equal opportunity for employment” and the complaint that stores “do not hire any Negroes in responsible jobs” are, if anything, more prominent than the demand for fountain service. In Birmingham, pickets wore sandwich boards reading “Don’t buy where you cannot be a salesman” and continued their pressure until each downtown department store hired at least one black clerk.