The Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court, and the Life of Lawrence Guyot

If medals were awarded for bravery and injuries sustained in the war over civil rights and voting rights, then Lawrence Guyot, who died this weekend, would have been one of our most decorated veterans.

The New York Times’ obituary chronicles some of his harrowing experiences:

Mr. Guyot (GHEE-ott) was repeatedly challenged, jailed and beaten as he helped lead fellow members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and student volunteers from around the nation in organizing Mississippi blacks to vote. In many of the state’s counties, no blacks were registered.

He further pressed the campaign for greater black participation in politics by serving as chairman of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, formed to supplant the all-white state Democratic Party. It lost its challenge to the established Mississippi party at the Democratic National Convention in 1964, but its efforts are seen as paving the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A famous moment in the civil rights movement occurred after Fannie Lou Hamer and two other civil rights workers were arrested for entering an area of a bus station reserved for whites in Winona, Miss., in June 1963. Mr. Guyot went to Winona to bail them out of jail. When he asked questions about their rough treatment, nine police officers beat him with the butts of guns, made him strip naked and threatened to burn his genitals. The abuse went on for four hours until a doctor advised the officers to stop.

Mr. Guyot’s remarkable life story yields some important lessons for the Nation and the Supreme Court as the Court begins consideration of Shelby County v. Holder, a monumentally important challenge to a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the iconic law for which for which Mr. Guyot shed blood.

Mr. Guyot’s death at the too-young age of 73 reminds us just how little time has passed since it took genuine, physical courage even to seek the right to vote in certain parts of the United States.   The presence among us of civil rights heroes such as John Lewis — and until this week Lawrence Guyot — ought to serve as a living conscience as the Court considers these issues.  The Civil Rights era is not just a historical abstraction. Millions of our fellow voters went to the polls this fall with first-hand memories of violence, verbal abuse and organized intimidation in their memory.  Perhaps that is why so many Americans were willing to endure ridiculously long lines at the polls, and why Mr. Guyot pushed himself to vote early a few weeks ago, in spite of his advanced illness.

Mr. Guyot’s life story is also a story of the progress, incomplete but inspiring, that’s been made on voting rights made in the last fifty years.  Many Americans waited too long at the polls and had to overcome unnecessary voting obstacles, but no one in 2012 experienced anything like the torture endured in 1963 by Mr. Guyot.  Indeed, in Mississippi, the state of Mr. Guyot’s victory, strong African-American turnout helped President Obama win a surprisingly strong 43% of the vote.

At the same time, the voter suppression efforts that marred the 2012 election yet again confirmed that the Voting Rights Act is the Nation’s first and best line of defense against efforts to disenfranchise American voters.   In 2012, conservative legislators and election officials in states throughout the country tried to change election rules to make it more difficult for Americans to vote.  These voting changes – imposing restrictive ID requirements, shortening early voting hours and making it more difficult to register to vote — had the greatest impact on young, minority, elderly and poor voters.  Fortunately, a number of important lower court rulings blocked the worst of these voting changes from ever going into effect, enforcing the requirement of the Voting Rights Act that requires states with a history of race discrimination in voting to obtain federal “preclearance” any change in voting laws or regulations. This key part of the Act, Section 5, is the component of the law threatened in the Shelby County case.

Voter suppression laws that were held back by Section 5 rulings this year (summarized here) included a strict Texas ID law, which a three-judge panel found was tantamount to reviving the poll tax, and a shortened early voting calendar in Florida that a judge found would be akin to “closing polling places in disproportionately African-American precincts.” Equally important, laws that ultimately did “clear,” like South Carolina’s ID law, which was approved for use beginning in 2013, did so because Section 5 made lawmakers more careful to avoid problematic outcomes, as one conservative judge observed.

That is the backdrop for the effort by conservative legal activists in the Shelby County case to get the Supreme Court to take the teeth out of the Voting Rights Act.  Conservatives argue that this iconic law is no longer necessary because the South is a different place today than it was when the law first passed.  That argument gets things exactly backwards. The South is a different place today because of the Voting Rights Act.  And the South would have been a different place in 2012 if the Voting Rights Act hadn’t blocked or tempered voter suppression efforts in Florida, Texas and South Carolina. 

As we mark the passing of a civil rights warrior who wore his scars proudly, Lawrence Guyot’s story should serve as a reminder of the truly heroic efforts that were necessary to win passage of iconic laws such as the Voting Rights Act.  Mr. Guyot will not be in the courtroom as the Supreme Court takes up Shelby County, but his story should loom over the Court’s deliberations and should lead the Court to affirm, rather than strike down, this iconic and still essential law.

(This piece was written with CAC’s Emily Phelps and will be cross-posted on CAC’s blog Text and History)