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Author: Supreme Court Usurped Congress On Voting Rights


The Voting Rights Act of 1965 transformed politics. It abolished poll taxes, literacy tests and other gimmicks designed to keep African-Americans from voting. And when blacks began to cast ballots, the consequences were immediate but not always predictable. States that had supported Democrats were known as the Solid South, but in the 1960s they flipped and became Republican. Today, there are 44 members of Congress who are African-American, hundreds of black mayors, people of every color in every level of government, from city councils to the U.S. Supreme Court and of course, the White House. But what is the vote meant in the lives of African-Americans? Darryl Pinckney, the writer, novelist and longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books, has written what he calls a meditation, both personal and analytical. It's called "Blackballed: The Black Vote And U.S. Democracy." Darryl Pinckney joins us from New York. Thanks much for being with us.

DARRYL PINCKNEY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let me get you to take on, as you do in the book, the 2012 Supreme Court decision of Shelby County Alabama versus Holder that said that the Voting Rights Act had been so successful that after 50 years it didn't need to be renewed. The South had earned the right to supervise their own elections without federal accountability. Why do you think that's a bad decision?

PINCKNEY: As Justice Ginsberg pointed out in her very eloquent dissent, these states would not have been under preclearance had they not had a history of suppressing minority votes. Ginsburg also pointed out that the justices and their decision - more or less you serve Congress' authority to determine election law. So it's an outrageous act. It's a real stepping back into darkness, and it almost is kind of violent in its disregard for the truth of American history.

SIMON: But your mind is in this book that during the civil rights movement there was disagreement among leadership over whether blacks should invest - or how much energy, at any rate - blacks should invest in electoral politics.

PINCKNEY: I think this is a long and deep-running argument, debate, feeling in black America about America itself. Many people perhaps don't trust the institutions or think that they're responsive enough, but this kind of feeling of not trusting what's going on or not feeling represented - withdrawal is not the answer and isolation is not the answer. And there never has been a way for blacks to go it alone. Separatism was maybe important as a kind of cultural attitude, but it was always a fantasy as a social and political possibility. I think we're...

SIMON: Your - in the book, you remind us of the days of what was called black consciousness and Stokely Carmichael and certainly, Malcolm X.

PINCKNEY: Yeah. I mean, it did a lot. These kind of leaps in self-perception were very important, but they should be directed now into participation.

SIMON: But can you see where a lot of Americans, while recognizing that their individual cases of voter intimidation, might look at the numbers that we talked about at the top - 44 members of Congress, an African-American president, members of the Supreme Court, hundreds of African-American mayors across the country - see those numbers and say, look, African-Americans are visibly voting without hindrance and a great effect in this country.

PINCKNEY: Well, there has been a lot of progress, but the thing is this progress is under threat. And there were people, very powerful people, who would like to see it rolled back. Districts are being redrawn so that black districts become even more - or the vote is sort of diluted in another direction. What we see in the gains that have been made are in spite of what the opposition, people opposed to these gains, have tried to do. They've not given up or relented, you know. Dr. King did, and every civil rights figure of the '60s and into the '70s did, stress that the struggle for equality required constant vigilance and, in a way, membership and U.S. democracy ask the same.

SIMON: I cast back to the civil rights movement that you read about in this book - that Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - those would not have passed without Republican support.

PINCKNEY: Yes, but part of it is giving up the right to be right, in order to meet someone sort of halfway. I just feel, maybe it's because I'm at least getting old, such an urgency about what's coming. That the things we're fighting over now are so petty and beside the point, that I think that the future of the nation is at stake, really, in how we treat the vote.

SIMON: Darryl Pinckney. His new book "Blackballed: The Black Vote And U.S. Democracy." Thanks so much for being with us.

PINCKNEY: Well, thank you.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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