The Arc Is Long


Review of Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, by Gary May

Basic Books, 2013

Fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the battle over voting rights persists. Issues including who may vote, in what manner, and the requirements of eligibility all remain contested questions, rather than settled law. Although Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act as recently as 2006 with strong bi-partisan support, partisan struggles at the state level have intensified greatly in recent years with the highest-profile debate occurring over voter identification requirements. Since the passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which sought to ameliorate a variety of issues that had come to light as a result of the contested 2000 presidential election, the number of states that have passed laws requiring voters to show some form of identification has more than doubled, from 11 to 34. In 2012 the Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, struck down the most powerful provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5, which gave the federal government oversight over voting laws in 15 states, and which required preclearance before any covered state could change its election law. Immediately afterwards, Texas and North Carolina moved to bring back more restrictive measures, including strict voter identification requirements.

Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, just two percent of African-Americans were registered to vote in the entire state of Alabama. Within months following its passage registration rates among African-Americans had risen considerably. The Voting Rights Act expanded the federal government’s authority over voting. Among its provisions, it abolished literacy tests, authorized the attorney general to file suits abolishing the poll tax, and made illegal the denial of the right to vote based on race or color. The effects of the Voting Rights Act were transformative in a myriad of ways. Beyond extending the franchise to African-Americans it later broadened the discrimination description to include American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives and people of Spanish heritage. The Voting Rights Act also changed the politics of voting. Following its passage, the Republican party made inroads into the once solidly Democratic south, and the divergence of the parties along liberal-conservative lines became increasingly polarized.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the 5-4 majority in Shelby County, allowed that while racism still exists, “things have changed in the South,” and thus the need for preclearance was no longer necessary. And yet the most recent political science research investigating the impact of and administration of restrictive voting laws has found persistent racial bias. From the shootings in South Carolina that ultimately led to South Carolina’s decision to take down the Confederate flag, to the social media coverage of police shootings of unarmed African Americans, to the growing #BlackLivesMatter movement, race and racism have moved to the headlines. These most recent events will most certainly be part of the discussion over the ongoing fight over voting rights. It is an important moment to reflect on the social and legal framework that moved the country to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and to consider what legal frameworks are necessary now to protect voting rights for all Americans.

Systematic disenfranchisement of southern blacks began in earnest in the 1890s with a slew of constitutional conventions across the south codifying poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, elaborate registration systems, and all-white primaries. The better part of a century later, in March 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the marchers who had arrived in Montgomery after a fifty-mile journey from Selma:

‘“How long must justice be crucified and truth buried?” he asked then quickly answered. “How long? Not long because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you still reap what you sow. How long? Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. How long? Not long, ‘cause mine eyes have the seen the coming of the Lord.” (p. 144).

From this speech, Gary May takes the title of his elegant book, Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy. May’s book offers readers a compelling, richly detailed, and vivid narrative of the people who worked for and against the expansion of voting rights in the mid-1960s and beyond. In the first two-thirds of the book, May takes us through the personal stories, dramas, protests, and violence in Selma, Alabama, while providing readers with the parallel story of discussions and debates in Washington D.C. in the Johnson White House and the events leading up to the ultimate passage of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. May deftly switches scenes between the two locations, highlighting the internal discussions within and between the key actors. 

May devotes the final third of the book to the congressional debate over renewal of the Voting Rights Act and the attempts to weaken the Act, as well as the changing landscape of the debate itself. The final chapter, “The Struggle of a Lifetime,” explores the most recent controversies in what Richard Hasen calls “the voting wars” — debates over voter identification requirements, early voting, felon disenfranchisement, and other issues. May argues that the persistence of racial polarization in modern America requires the Voting Rights Act to protect the voting rights of minority voters, asserting that electoral prospects for blacks remains limited and highlighting low levels of support for Obama in the previously covered states under the Section 5. Other than Virginia, May notes, “no other southern state has sent a black man or woman to its governor’s mansion since Reconstruction” (p. 239). Bending Toward Justice was published in April 2013, two months before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) in Shelby County, gutting section 5.


Historian James Patterson’s book, “The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America,” dedicated solely to the year 1965, asserts that 1965 was the apex of liberalism, the culmination of the promises of the New Deal and one of the most productive legislative years in the history of the United States. The year featured the passage of Medicaid, Medicare, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the creation of the office of Housing and Urban Development among many others. Yet, Patterson writes, 1965 was also the beginning of the end of liberalism and a time when new conservatism began to take hold. 1965, Patterson wrote, was the year when “America’s social cohesion began to unravel” (p. xiii). Just five days after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, Watts in Los Angeles exploded in riots. For white civil rights supporters who had regarded America’s racial challenges as a largely southern one, the eruption prompted a rethinking about how far their support would travel. By the end of the year, the black power movement had emerged and many of the core groups that had sustained the civil rights movement fell apart, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and CORE, Congress of Racial Equality.

May’s book highlights these simmering tensions within the civil rights movement, while also vividly detailing one of its most important victories. Bending Toward Justice opens with the story of 21-year-old SNCC member Bernard Lafayette, who arrived in Selma, Alabama in the summer of 1962 -- a city SNCC had “abandoned” because “organizing voters there successfully was ‘too hard’” according to SNCC’s executive secretary James Forman (p. 5). Selma was home to the first White Citizens’ Council, a group of ultrasegregationists whose “businessmen controlled the economic life of the city,” (p. 7). When Lafayette arrived, he received cool treatment from the black community concerned that he would “’get the white people all stirred up,’” (p. 13). Lafayette recruited volunteers in secret. The president of Selma University threatened students with expulsion if their civil rights activities “embarrassed the school,” (p. 15) and the principal of the high school warned of his arrest. 

May recounts how Lafayette gained traction in Selma, gradually recruiting staff and volunteers and moving the community to believe that change was possible. May also provides key details of the costs of activity. As Lafayette’s profile was raised, there came increased scrutiny from authorities. We read of his anxiety about police surveillance and more broadly of police brutality, of the absence of federal intervention, of an FBI that did not investigate crimes, and of murders perpetrated by whites that went uninvestigated and unprosecuted. May notes that on Bloody Sunday itself, two FBI agents filmed it, but “never tried to stop it” (p. 88). 

May’s strength lies in his ability to portray a complex web of relationships and actions. He showcases internal divisions at every turn. Following Johnson’s landslide election in 1964 and the large majorities he had in Congress a tepid Johnson told King, “’I’m going to do it eventually, but I can’t get voting rights through in this session of Congress’.” (p. 48) Johnson reasoned that, on the heels of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Congress and the country “needed time to adjust” and that it was simply not the “’politically expedient thing to do.’” (p. 48). At the same time, Johnson had asked his attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach to secretly draft a bill. May brings us into the Senate to observe Katzenbach working with Illinois senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican minority leader, to craft the bill.

Within the white community of Selma itself, May tells of the newly elected mayor Joe T. Smitherman who, in 1964, worried that Selma’s racial problems “would ruin its reputation and prevent northern businessmen from investing in municipal businesses,” (p. 40). One of Smitherman’s first moves was to establish a new agency, the office of public safety, taking the power of city law enforcement away from Sheriff Clark and giving it to the newly appointed director, Wilson Baker. Clark would retain power over the courthouse and beyond the city limits. 

May sketches the disputes and debates behind the scenes within the Johnson administration and within Congress about the bill itself over ending literacy tests, the creation of presidentially appointed federal registrars guaranteeing voting laws, and how wide a net to cast over local, state, and national elections. And finally, May offers vivid detail of the days and weeks of the three marches that took place in March of 1965, including the brutal beatings and tear gassing of marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7 which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, the subsequent attempt on March 9th, and the final march that began on March 21st. Bloody Sunday catalyzed marches all over the United States and accelerated the Johnson administration’s timetable for moving on voting rights legislation. 

While the first two-thirds of the book examines three years in detail, the last third of the book gives an overview of the succeeding fifty years. Thus, the last third is less coherent and less focused in its explanation of the political transformations that bring us to today, when the Democratic and Republican parties are nearly completely polarized on the issue of voting rights. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed with strong bipartisan majorities: the House passed it 328 to 74, with 54 Democrats and 20 Republicans voting against it; it passed the Senate 79 to 18, with 17 Democrats and 1 Republican voting against it. When the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 2006 it received support from President George W. Bush who encouraged his Republican majority to support the extension, arguing there was “no political payoff for attacking the now iconic Voting Rights Act,” (p. 234). Since the 2010 elections and the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling, however, the partisan landscape of voting rights has shifted dramatically. The expansion and contraction of voting rights is now taking place at a dizzying place in state legislatures across the country, not just within the South. The issues have become more complex too. Today’s concerns over voting rights policy include early voting periods, felon disenfranchisement, voter registration procedures, voter identification and turnout, not just among African-Americans, but also among Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. Partisan control of state legislatures is a far better predictor of voting rights policy than region. May covers some of these issues, but not all, and at far less depth. 

Bending Toward Justice is a terrific addition to the literature on the history of the Voting Rights Act. It offers an engrossing narrative of the drama leading up to the Act and a careful depiction of the vulnerabilities, flaws, and challenges faced by many of the key characters. Here the reader comes to know King’s self-doubt, Johnson’s orders to have the FBI wiretap King, J. Edgar Hoover’s attempts to undermine King, the raw racism, hatred, and anger of Sherrif Clark, and the worries, fears, and heroism of the civil rights activists. The book is not, as it promises, a full treatment of the “transformation of American Democracy” since the Voting Rights Act. More books are needed to help explain and elucidate the polarized politics that marks today’s voting wars, and the challenges ahead posed by a fragmented set of policies that vary so widely by state. But Gary May’s book is a lucid and vibrant account of the struggle to achieve this critically important piece of legislation and of the battles that ensued after its passage.

Posted on 28 October 2015

RACHAEL V. COBB is Chair and Associate Professor of Government at Suffolk University.