Dan K. Thomasson
---- — What a month the last one was for Americans. We were told by the Supreme Court that key parts of the law to protect the voting rights of African-Americans was no longer viable, while at the same time the rights of gays were given new protections from federal interference. The same court also saved affirmative action from the trash heap.
Does the word “schizophrenia” apply here? Perhaps a better word would be “confusion,” because that’s what most of us feel. In none of the landmark cases was there a black-and-white decision (no pun intended), a hard-and-fast ruling that would resist further challenge.
In a 5-4 decision, the court negated the Voting Rights Act provision that said all or parts of 15 states with a history of racial discrimination -- mostly in the South -- required federal approval of any changes in how they run elections. But the court invited Congress to revise the landmark legislation, passed nearly 50 years ago in the maelstrom of the civil rights era, to meet any possible recurrence of repressive state measures aimed at minorities.
The ruling was immediately condemned by the Congressional Black Caucus and national civil rights groups. They cited pending state laws demanding voter identification and other measures as clear evidence of lingering racism against blacks and Hispanics in the affected states. They rightly surmised that, in the current political atmosphere, a congressional fix is highly unlikely.
As for gays’ civil rights, the court took a giant step forward in its decision upsetting the Defense of Marriage Act, which aimed to outlaw same-sex marriage. Then it let stand a lower court’s decision that had declared California’s Proposition 8 prohibition of gay nuptials unconstitutional, effectively overturning it. California Gov. Jerry Brown immediately announced his state would begin marrying gay couples.
Once again, the justices put a qualification on the good fortune of same-sex couples who want to tie the knot. It said that while the federal government’s benefits to married couples of the same sex are good in states that recognize gay marriage, that isn’t the case in those states that don’t. Thirteen states now sanction gay marriage.
The court’s “on the one hand this and on the other hand that” decision, while still a major victory for gay-rights advocates, will certainly bring continued litigation at both the state and federal level as gays steadily press for marital acceptance.
As the court goes on summer recess, it leaves behind a cultural landscape much changed.
Those of us who covered the enormous civil rights legislative achievements of 1964 and ‘65 could not foresee a time when the abhorrent prejudices against our fellow citizens wouldn’t require governmental attention. It was a Supreme Court that in the late 1800s sanctified the doctrine of separate but equal and in effect overturned the Emancipation Proclamation, extending second-class citizenship and humiliation in whole sections of the country for more than 60 years.
Nor did we imagine that those with condemned sexual preferences would ever be able to exist outside of the closet.
Great strides have been made since those tumultuous times in which courageous Republicans and Democrats and Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson basically ended official segregation and the denial of constitutional rights.
But no one should doubt that a residue of racism lingers among us. Only a few years back, Congress recognized this and continued the sanctions that the court has decided the nation no longer needs.
Charles Robb, distinguished former Marine officer, Virginia governor and U.S. senator, spoke eloquently to a few of us the other evening about his youth in a highly segregated atmosphere.
Like most of us wherever we lived, he was oblivious to the daily inequities and indignities suffered by some of those around us.
As he became an adult and entered public life, Robb said, he began to realize -- as his father-in-law LBJ had -- that injustices against race and sexual preference were not only intolerable but debilitating to a nation dedicated to equality and freedom. He was among the first to challenge concepts that forced gays in the military and government life to hide their sexual preferences.
June might have been a confusing month, but it also was exciting.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by SHNS at www.shns.com.