The New York Times Magazine
August 2, 2015
Photographs by Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times. Illustration by Ben Wiseman.
By Jim Rutenberg
On the morning of his wedding, in 1956, Henry Frye realized that he had a few hours to spare before the afternoon ceremony. He was staying at his parents’ house in Ellerbe, N.C.; the ceremony would take place 75 miles away, in Greensboro, the hometown of his fiancée; and the drive wouldn’t take long. Frye, who had always been practical, had a practical thought: Now might be a good time to finally register to vote. He was 24 and had just returned from Korea, where he served as an Air Force officer, but he was also a black man in the American South, so he wasn’t entirely surprised when his efforts at the registrar’s office were blocked.
Adopting a tactic common in the Jim Crow South, the registrar subjected Frye to what election officials called a literacy test. In 1900, North Carolina voters amended the state’s Constitution to require that all new voters “be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language,” but for decades some registrars had been applying that already broad mandate even more aggressively, targeting perfectly literate black registrants with arbitrary and obscure queries, like which president served when or who had the ultimate power to adjourn Congress. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t know why are you asking me all of these questions,’ ” Frye, now 83, recalled. “We went around and around, and he said, ‘Are you going to answer these questions?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not going to try.’ And he said, ‘Well, then, you’re not going to register today.’ ”
Sitting with me on the enclosed porch of his red-brick ranch house in Greensboro, drinking his wife’s sweet tea, Frye could joke about the exchange now, but at the time it left him upset and determined. When he met Shirley at the altar, the first thing he said was: “You know they wouldn’t let me register?”
“Can we talk about this later?” she replied.
After a few weeks, Frye drove over to the Board of Elections in Rockingham, the county seat, to complain. An official told him to go back and try again. This time a different registrar, after asking if he was the fellow who had gone over to the election board, handed him a paragraph to copy from the Constitution. He copied it, and with that, he became a voter.
But in the American South in 1956, not every would-be black voter was an Air Force officer with the wherewithal to call on the local election board; for decades, most had found it effectively impossible to attain the most elemental rights of citizenship. Only about one-quarter of eligible black voters in the South were registered that year, according to the limited records available. By 1959, when Frye went on to become one of the first black graduates of the University of North Carolina law school, that number had changed little. When Frye became a legal adviser to the students running the antisegregation sit-ins at the Greensboro Woolworth’s in 1960, the number remained roughly the same. And when Frye became a deputy United States attorney in the Kennedy administration, it had grown only slightly. By law, the franchise extended to black voters; in practice, it often did not.
What changed this state of affairs was the passage, 50 years ago this month, of the Voting Rights Act. Signed on Aug. 6, 1965, it was meant to correct “a clear and simple wrong,” as Lyndon Johnson said. “Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote.” It eliminated literacy tests and other Jim Crow tactics, and — in a key provision called Section 5 — required North Carolina and six other states with histories of black disenfranchisement to submit any future change in statewide voting law, no matter how small, for approval by federal authorities in Washington. No longer would the states be able to invent clever new ways to suppress the vote. Johnson called the legislation “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom,” and not without justification. By 1968, just three years after the Voting Rights Act became law, black registration had increased substantially across the South, to 62 percent. Frye himself became a beneficiary of the act that same year when, after a close election, he became the first black state representative to serve in the North Carolina General Assembly since Reconstruction.
In the decades that followed, Frye and hundreds of other new black legislators built on the promise of the Voting Rights Act, not just easing access to the ballot but finding ways to actively encourage voting, with new state laws allowing people to register at the Department of Motor Vehicles and public-assistance offices; to register and vote on the same day; to have ballots count even when filed in the wrong precinct; to vote by mail; and, perhaps most significant, to vote weeks before Election Day. All of those advances were protected by the Voting Rights Act, and they helped black registration increase steadily. In 2008, for the first time, black turnout was nearly equal to white turnout, and Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black president.
Since then, however, the legal trend has abruptly reversed. In 2010, Republicans flipped control of 11 state legislatures and, raising the specter of voter fraud, began undoing much of the work of Frye and subsequent generations of state legislators. They rolled back early voting, eliminated same-day registration, disqualified ballots filed outside home precincts and created new demands for photo ID at polling places. In 2013, the Supreme Court, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, directly countermanded the Section 5 authority of the Justice Department to dispute any of these changes in the states Section 5 covered. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, declared that the Voting Rights Act had done its job, and it was time to move on. Republican state legislators proceeded with a new round of even more restrictive voting laws.
All of these seemingly sudden changes were a result of a little-known part of the American civil rights story. It involves a largely Republican countermovement of ideologues and partisan operatives who, from the moment the Voting Rights Act became law, methodically set out to undercut or dismantle its most important requirements. The story of that decades-long battle over the iconic law’s tenets and effects has rarely been told, but in July many of its veteran warriors met in a North Carolina courthouse to argue the legality of a new state voting law that the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School has called one of the “most restrictive since the Jim Crow era.” The decision, which is expected later this year, could determine whether the civil rights movement’s signature achievement is still justified 50 years after its signing, or if the movement itself is finished.
By The Langston (@ASPIREhomes)
By The Langston (@ASPIREhomes)