The Second Reconstruction Is Over
Berkeley Journal of African
Robert V. Ward Jr.
Follow this and additional works at: http://scholarship.law.berkele y.edu/bjalp Part of theLaw Commons Recommended Citation Robert V. Ward Jr., Th e Second Reconstruction Is Over, 16 Berkeley J. Afr.-Am. L. & Pol'y 75 (2015). Available at: http://scholarship.law.berkele y.edu/bjalp/vol16/iss2/8
ROBERT V. WARD JR.*
When I learned about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Shelby
County v. Holder, 1 my first thought was that America's Second
Reconstruction had ended.
Our first experiment with Reconstruction faded into history when
Congressional Republicans and southern Democrats conspired, in effect, to
trade away the rights of the newly enfranchised former slaves in order to
ensure the election of President Rutherford Hayes, a Republican. When
federal troops ended the occupation of the repatriated Confederate States, the
rights guaranteed to Black Americans living in the south by the Constitution
and the Civil Rights Statutes were ended as well. In many of these states,
former slaves and their offspring would not regain their right to vote until
the 1965 Voting Rights Act2 (VRA) became law.
Unlike the Compromise of 1877, when a Republican President
abandoned the pretense of a federal commitment to the ideal of equality and
civil status for former slaves and free blacks, the latter day Reconstruction
has been dealt a fatal blow this time by the Supreme Court. The Court’s
decision in Shelby County, a federal withdrawal of another sort, has the
potential to create an environment where, sadly, history could repeat itself.
Generally I am an optimist. But I worry. Is the nation on the precipice,
at risk of revisiting the horrors that occurred following the end of the first
Reconstruction? I wonder if America is capable of embracing the evils of
apartheid a second time. Some may accuse me of being an alarmist, but
history has shown people are most vulnerable when they are disenfranchised.
Government is free to ignore the needs of those who cannot or do not vote.
The right to vote is the key to holding elected officials accountable.
* I am of counsel with Law Office of Kenneth V. Kurnos Esq. Boston, MA. I would like to thank
the Director of the library at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth School of Law Professor
Spenser Clough. He was of great assistance in the reasearch for the essay/article.
1 Shelby Cnty. v. Holder, 133 S.Ct. 2612 (2013).
2 42 U.S.C.A. §1973 et. seq.
As in the 1800’s, advances made through the use of the ballot box by
Black Americans and others at society’s margins are now in danger. Shelby
County is just the most recent in a string of cases that cast doubt on the
vitality of the right to vote for people of color. The Voting Rights Act has
been under attack since it was enacted. Section 4(b) has been the particular
focus of southern ire. 3 As passed in 1965, under the coverage formula in
section 4(b) that the Court found unconstitutional, six states Alabama,
Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia were required
to submit any changes in their voting laws to the Justice Department for
approval. Subsequent amendments to the law by Congress added North
Carolina, Alaska, Arizona, Texas and specific counties in California, Florida,
Michigan, New York, South Dakota and Texas to the list of states which must
obtain pre-approval before changes in their voting laws may take effect.
Politicians representing states singled out for heightened scrutiny
under the VRA have argued that it is unfair to judge southern states, in
particular those which made up the Old Confederacy, by their past. They go
on to argue that things are different today. Black Americans now register and
vote at a level similar to whites. These arguments persuaded five Justices
who voted that section 4(b) of VRA is unconstitutional.
The Court is wrong. Those who advocated for an end to the scrutiny of
states which have had a long history of employing tactics designed to
disenfranchise black voters are wrong too. It is true that these states,
particularly those in the south, no longer use literacy tests and poll taxes to
determine voter eligibility. New impediments have taken the place of the
earlier obstacles to the exercise of a right to vote.
I have been involved in voter protection since 2000. I have observed
first-hand the lengths to which reactionary forces will go to prevent the
young, elderly and people of color from either voting or having their vote
counts. Many of these states now require possession of government issued
photo identification prior to voting. The requirement that voters present
government issued or approved photo identification before they will be
allowed to vote discriminates against the poor, elderly and people living in
large urban areas. Members of these groups are less likely to have a driver’s
license or passport.
Other states have done away with early and late voting and voting by
mail. Both practices are known to be favored by working class people, who
3 42 U.S.C.A. §1973b(b).
find it difficult to cast their ballot during traditional voting hours of 7 AM to
8 PM. States covered by section 4(b) of VRA, have attempted through
gerrymandering to dilute the voting power of communities of color, the
working poor and those living in the cities. The efforts to disenfranchise these
voters takes on even greater significance when you consider that this group of
voters tends to have little economic clout.
Although Americans twice elected Barack Obama, a black man,
President, this does not mean that the right to vote is secure for all. Given
the large number of states, which have passed restrictive voting legislation
since 2000, including laws that make it harder to register to vote, my fears
are not irrational.4
The opposition to the VRA became more intense after the data from
the 2000 and 2010 Censuses was processed and more fully understood.5 It is
not difficult to imagine a coalition of conservative Republicans, Tea Party
members and insecure southern whites working together to take back what
they believe to be “their” country. Some members of these groups have openly
expressed a desire to return to a way of life which predated the signing of the
1965 Voting Rights Act. The goal of this new conservative coalition, like the
forces which aligned to end the first Reconstruction, is to deny political power
to members of groups historically excluded from participating in
The first American Reconstruction (1853-1877) ushered in a level of
freedom and political power for Blacks that was almost unimaginable. In
addition to being freed from bondage, large numbers of Blacks voted for the
first time. Seven African Americans were elected to the Congress. Hiram
Rhodes was the first African American to serve in the Senate of the United
States. The six Blacks elected to the U.S. House of Representatives were all
from former Confederate States.
With the approval of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth
Amendments, Black Americans were guaranteed freedom from slavery, all
the rights of white citizens under state and federal law, and the right to vote.
4 For a description of restrictive voting bills that have been introduced or passed in the states as
well as the legislation that expands voting access see Voting Laws Roundup 2013, Brennan
Center for Justice at New York University School of Law,
5 See e.g. The Diversifying Electorate—Voting Rates by Race and Hispanic Origin in 2012 (and
Other Recent Elections), Population Characteristics, Current Population Survey, U.S.
Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, United States Census
Bureau, (May 2013). http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-568.pdf
All of these new rights were important, but the most sacred was the right to
vote. The prospect of Black citizens, voting to advance their own interests,
terrified many southern whites. Consequently, the erection of legal barriers
to prevent the freed slaves from voting was almost inevitable. The Civil War
brought freedom, but it did not alter the socio-economic condition of Black
Americans. Their hard earned rights were built on quicksand, not solid rock.
The First Reconstruction lasted a mere thirteen years.
As naïve as it may seem, the true surprise for me has been watching
the Supreme Court lead the charge to turn back the hands of time on the
right to vote. The conservative members of the Court have ignored the
principles that constrain judges --like deference to Congress in this
representative democracy or the principle of stare decisis which should make
them cautious in overruling prior decisions. The decisions by the Court in the
area of voter rights in the broader sense, has brought new meaning to the
phrase “Judicial Activist.”
Until Shelby County v. Holder, most of efforts to restrict rather than
expand voter rolls was left largely to state legislatures. Since 2000, states
hoping to restrict voting have enacted numerous laws reminiscent of poll
taxes and literacy tests in their effect. Today the barriers to voting favored by
the states seeking to purge voting rolls include photo identification laws,
repeal of early voting, and gerrymandering by state legislatures of the
boundaries of voting districts. Had Shelby County v. Holder been decided
prior to the general elections of 2008 and 2012, if there had been no
constraint on the restrictive measures being enacted by the states, it is
probable that the voter turnout by communities of color, young voters, elderly
voters and city dwellers would have been significantly lower.
2000, the Millennium year, and 2010 were census years. According to
the data collected in each of these two census years, there have been
dramatic changes in America's demographics. Census data shows that white
Americans have become our nation’s new minority. More people are living in
American cities. About seventy-five percent of the people in the country now
live in the large urban metropolises of the nation.
For those enamored with a whiter America, one like that portrayed in
first season of the television series “Mad Men”6 the sum and substance of the
census data is a clarion call to action. Conservatives, who for many decades
cared little about the cities, and even less about communities of color, are
now confronted with a new political reality. Something had to be done to
6 Mad Men (AMC Studios July 19, 2007 – present).
prevent a shift in political power to the historical “have not’s” like that which
occurred from 1860’s through the 1870’s.
The backlash caused by these changes in the national demographics
and the success of the Democratic Party in electing a Black President should
come as no surprise. The way in which the backlash manifested caught many
people off guard. The handwriting was on the wall, however. It would be the
Supreme Court riding to the rescue of conservatives. Over the past thirteen
years, the United States Supreme Court has made it clear that the Second
Reconstruction needed to end. Our Second Reconstruction began with the
passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.7 It ended when the Court issued its
opinion in Shelby County v. Holder. In striking down of section 4(b) of VRA,
the Court took the position that the states of the Old Confederacy should no
longer be under the direct supervision of the federal government with regard
to the right to suffrage for minority groups.
In support of this conclusion, the Court relies heavily on the fact that
there appears to be parity in the percentage of blacks and whites who are
enrolled to vote and who voted in recent elections.8 The 5 to 4 majority, led by
the conservative/libertarian wing of the Court, saw nothing so seriously
wrong with the practices used by the enumerated states to justify continued
federal supervision of elections taking place there.9
The majority concedes that things are not perfect, but argues the
current situation is a vast improvement over what occurred in the past. To
arrive at this conclusion, or more accurately stated, to make this leap of faith,
the justices created an alternate reality. The Court ignored the fact that
hundreds of lawsuits have been filed since 1965 against many of the states it
declares no longer engage in voter suppression.
This tortured finding of facts should not have come as a surprise. The
current Court or, more correctly, some members of it, have an ideological
agenda that is so slanted that the Justices have abandoned traditional
conservative values in the area of statutory interpretation. Those reading the
Court's decisions related to voting in general must wonder what happened to
notions such as giving deference to the will of the legislature, strict
construction, stare decisis and separation of powers?
7 42 U.S.C.A. §2000a.
8 Shelby Cnty., 133 S. Ct. at 2625.
9 Shelby Cnty., 133 S. Ct. at 2630-2631.
Bush v. Gore10 was the first of three key cases decided by the Court
over a thirteen-year span, which neutralizes the political impact of a new
electorate, that is majority minority. Citizens United v. FEC11 and Shelby v.
Holder provided additional tools for the old majority to continue their assault
on the voting power of the new majority of Americans.
Between 2000 and 2013 the Court has ruled on thirty or more cases
that related to voting. In Bush v. Gore, the Florida Supreme Court, consistent
with its rules, ordered that 9000 ballots from Miami-Dade County be counted.
These votes/ballots had not been included in the tally reported by county
officials to Florida's Secretary of State. An issue arose as to whether any of
the 9000 ballots were valid votes. Under Florida law, a valid vote is one
where the intent of the voter can be readily determined from looking at the
ballot. In Gore v. Harris 12 , Florida's Supreme Court ordered that 9000
ballots, called "undervotes," be reviewed to determine if the voter had
intended to cast a vote for one of the candidates. 9000 votes were enough to
shift the outcome of the election from one side to the other. Governor Bush
had a mere 1,747 more votes than Vice President Gore. A manual count was
the only way to ascertain the actual intent of the voters. This process would
have allowed additional votes to be included in the state's final tally. It would
also have prevented a large number of voters from being disenfranchised.
The disputed ballots had not been tabulated because the voting
machine had not pushed the chad completely through the ballot sheet. These
machines had a history of undercounting votes. Many of those machines
happened to be assigned to a county where large numbers of people of color
lived and voted. Since the 1940's starting with the election of Franklin D.
Roosevelt, a very high percentage of Black Americans have tended to vote for
the democratic candidate seeking the presidency.
The legal team for Governor Bush filed suit with the United States
Supreme Court asking them to stop the Florida recount. It was argued that
Bush's Equal Protection rights, guaranteed under the Fourteenth
Amendment, were being violated. Most legal scholars were surprised that the
Court agreed to hear the matter. Many people were shocked at the outcome.
By a vote of 5 to 4 the Supreme Court agreed with candidate Bush. It
ordered an end to the recount. President Bush won the 2000 election by the
slimmest of margins. The Court's decision voided thousands of votes;
10Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000).
11Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
12 772 So.2d 1243 (2000), cert. granted 531 U.S. 1046 (2000), rev’d Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98
depriving those voters of the opportunity to have their votes count. It is likely
that many of the voters who were deprived of the right to have their vote
count were of African American ancestry.
The five Justices deciding Bush v. Gore clearly did not see the irony in
resolving this matter using the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment was
enacted to protect the rights of former slaves, including their right to vote. In
Bush v. Gore, the Court used the very law intended to protect the voting
rights of former slaves to disenfranchise their descendants. That was when I
began to wonder whether the Second Reconstruction was in danger of being
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 13 is yet another
example of a decision by the Court undermining the voting strength of a
majority minority electorate. From this author's viewpoint, the functional
value of the Second Reconstruction was in the Court's cross-hairs.
Eliminating campaign finance regulations could blunt the impact of voting by
minorities. Corporations can’t vote, but corporations can influence voting in
a variety of ways, all of which cost money. The money funded campaigns that
spread disinformation and distortions through negative advertising and dirty
tricks designed to deter minority voters and voter fraud.
In Citizens United, five Justices of the Court opened the door to allow
corporations, foreign and domestic, the opportunity to buy election results.
Since Citizens United was decided, corporations are free to spend unlimited
sums to get the outcome they desire in Federal, state and local elections.
According to the Court, corporations have exactly the same First Amendment
rights as human beings. Their right is absolute. According to the Court,
neither the states nor federal government can tell corporations how to spend
the money (or the money of their shareholders) as that would limit the
corporations’ right of free speech. Creating, or carving out, an unfettered
right by corporations to engage in politics and allowing them to spend
unlimited amounts, neutralizes the effectiveness of grassroots organizations
which cannot compete against corporations on occasions when their interests
Grassroots/community movements frequently advocate for people
living on the margins, the working-poor. They are champions for positions
which are often the polar opposite of those favored by big business.
Grassroots/community groups have lead the fight against corporate lobbyists
13 Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm'n, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
on issues like oil exploration and drilling in national parks, fracking or the
extraction of gas from shale formations, gun control and the proliferation of
Big Box stores like Walmart. These movements have frequently represented
the interest of the poor and the working poor. Many members of
grassroots/community movements are people of color. In a post-affirmative
action America, class designations such “ lower class” and “working poor”,
often serve as proxies for race. Corporations do not generally share the same
values or interest of the poor.
Prior to Citizens United, campaign finance reform was achieved
through Congressional action, legislation and regulations that created the
possibility of a more level playing field in political struggles where corporate
interests were being challenged. In a battle for hearts, minds and votes, if
money is the determining factor, corporate entities will almost always win.
The Citizens United case permits entities with easy access to wealth to flood
the airways with messaging designed to drown out the speech of poorly
funded entities like the typical citizen based grassroots/community
The facts of the Citizens United case are helpful in understanding the
breadth of the challenges faced by activists. Citizens United produced a 90
minute video which it attempted to distribute via "On Demand" television in
states holding primary elections when Hillary Clinton was a candidate for
President of the United States. The video was to be advertised in 20 and 30
second ads and sold to digital cable subscribers. The video disparaged
candidate Clinton in a vile way. Citizens’ United, a non-profit corporation
was barred from running the video by the McCain-Feingold Act, otherwise
known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.14
Citizens United filed its action against the Federal Election
Commission (FEC) in the United States District Court for the District of
Columbia in 2007. It asserted in its petition that section (1) of BCRA violated
the entity's First Amendment right of free speech. The statute under attack
prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to
make independent expenditures for speech that is "electioneering" or speech
that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate for Federal
Office. The law prevented Citizens United from airing a tawdry video on
Hillary Clinton 30 days before a presidential primary.
Five Justices agreed that the non-profit's First Amendment right was
violated. To accomplish this, as they did in Bush v. Gore and Shelby County v.
14 2 U.S.C.A. § 441 b.
Holder, a majority of the Court had to invalidate legislation and overturn two
previous decisions. The principle of stare decisis fell to the wayside because
the Court's conservative majority was determined to bend the law to fit their
ideology. In the end Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce 15 and
McConnell v. Federal Election Commission16, were overturned. The reasoning
in those cases was that the electioneering law did not violate a corporation's
rights because corporations had a vehicle to express their ideas. They could
use political action committees.
According to the majority in Citizens United, we should not be
concerned about regulating the infusion of large amounts of money into
campaigns. Even if this fear is rational, it does not outweigh the First
Amendment rights of corporations. Concerns about the integrity of the
election process; a fear that unlimited sums of money could distort or corrupt
the political process is not a legitimate governmental interest.
Citizens United was a body blow to those who had worked for
campaign finance reform. There are no longer any limits on how corporations
spend their money in elections. The Court has handed society's “1 percent”
the chance to preserve the status quo. Stated another way Citizens United
gave a blank check to corporations to buy elections and thus dilute the voting
power of a majority minority citizenry.
Even after Bush v. Gore and Citizens United, there was hope for those
who were the beneficiaries of the Second Reconstruction. How bad could
things be? After all, a Black man was twice elected president. Money might
make the contest difficult, but the right to vote provided a majority minority
electorate a way to gain access to political power.
The Shelby County v. Holder decision, however, is a direct assault on
the voting power of this electorate. For now we must take the Court at its
word, when it implicitly tells us that the right to vote is sacred and will not
be taken away by the states on their watch. In Shelby County the Justices
concluded section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Several
members of the majority, fervent believers in states’ rights, also wanted to
strike down section 5. Fortunately, that did not happen.
The Shelby County majority wants us all to believe our right to vote is
secure. How does one explain the zeal with which many of the Justices
15 394 U.S. 692 (1990).
16 540 U.S. 93 (2003).
appear ready to dismantle a key portion of the Voting Rights Act? They have
argued that the past is irrelevant to the future; the formula determining
which states or political subdivisions will be subject to pre-clearance under §5
of the VRA is no longer necessary because the right to vote for people of color
is secure throughout the land.
I am less certain about that. To me the Second Reconstruction is over.
The only question remaining is whether the gains made since 1965 will
disappear as they did 150 years ago when the First Reconstruction ended.