When the Fifteenth Amendment of 1870 granted African Americans the right to vote, it seemed as if a new era of political equality was at hand. Before long, however, white segregationists across the South counterattacked, driving their black countrymen from the polls through a combination of sheer terror and insidious devices such as complex literacy tests and expensive poll taxes. Most African Americans would remain voiceless for nearly a century more, citizens in name only until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act secured their access to the ballot.
In Bending Toward Justice, celebrated historian Gary May describes how black voters overcame centuries of bigotry to secure and preserve one of their most important rights as American citizens. The struggle that culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act was long and torturous, and only succeeded because of the courageous work of local freedom fighters and national civil rights leaders—as well as, ironically, the opposition of Southern segregationists and law enforcement officials, who won public sympathy for the voting rights movement by brutally attacking peaceful demonstrators. But while the Voting Rights Act represented an unqualified victory over such forces of hate, May explains that its achievements remain in jeopardy. Many argue that the 2008 election of President Barack Obama rendered the act obsolete, yet recent years have seen renewed efforts to curb voting rights and deny minorities the act’s hard-won protections. Legal challenges to key sections of the act may soon lead the Supreme Court to declare those protections unconstitutional.
A vivid, fast-paced history of this landmark piece of civil rights legislation, Bending Toward Justice offers a dramatic, timely account of the struggle that finally won African Americans the ballot—although, as May shows, the fight for voting rights is by no means over.
May's lively and cogent history of the Voting Rights Act is indispensable reading for anyone concerned about the erosion of voting rights that has accompanied the election of Barack Obama, America's first black president, especially as the issue is still up for debate in 2013, in a case to be heard by the Supreme Court. Drawing on a wealth of sources, University of Delaware historian May (Informant: the FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo) has constructed a vivid, fast-paced morality tale with clearly recognizable heroes, like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Bernard Lafayette, whose commitment to Christian nonviolence transformed a dispirited Alabama town, and villains, like Sherriff Jim Clark, whose propensity for violence inadvertently strengthened Martin Luther King Jr.'s cause. On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, state troopers and local vigilantes in Selma, Ala., brutally attacked a small group of African-American nonviolent protesters. That event shocked the conscience of the nation and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, perhaps the most lasting achievement of the Civil Rights movement. By focusing on Selma, May pays tribute to the courage of otherwise ordinary people and makes a case for the continued relevance of this legislation. Photos.