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“A Clear Signal to Officials of the White South: ’Go Back to Your Old Ways’”: Vernon Jordan Argues Against the Nixon Administration’s Voting Rights Proposal

The Voting Rights Act of 1965—called “the most successful civil rights law in the nation’s history” by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—was enacted in order to force Southern states and localities to allow all citizens of voting age to vote in public elections. Although the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed citizens the right to vote regardless of race, discriminatory requirements, such as literacy tests, disenfranchised many African Americans in the South. In 1965, following the murder of a voting rights activist by an Alabama sheriff’s deputy and the subsequent attack by state troopers on a massive protest march in Selma, President Lyndon B. Johnson pressed Congress to pass a voting rights bill with “teeth”. The Act, signed into law on August 6, applied to states or counties where fewer than half of the citizens of voting age were registered in 1964—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and numerous counties in North Carolina. For these areas, the law banned literacy tests, appointed Federal examiners to oversee election procedures, and, according to the Act’s controversial Section 5, required approval by the U.S. Attorney General of future changes to election laws. In 1969, a Senate subcommittee held hearings to discuss extending the Act. In the following statement, Vernon E. Jordan strongly argued against a House bill, advocated by the Nixon Administration, that proposed to extend coverage to the entire country and replace Section 5 with an oversight mechanism more amenable to the white South. Ultimately, on June 22, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law a bill that extended the Act’s provisions, including Section 5, for five additional years, and in addition, lowered the voting age throughout the country to 18.

Statement of Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., Director, Voter Education Project, Southern Regional Council, Inc.

Mr. Jordan. Since 1962, Mr. Chairman, the voter education project has been giving small grants to various organizations, most of them Negro organizations, in 11 Southern States for the purpose of conducting voter registration drives in their localities. For the most part, these drives have been conducted among black people for the very good reason that most whites in the South are registered to vote, whereas Negro registration in the South has been abysmally low.

Since 1962, Mr. Chairman, Negro registration in the South has more than doubled. This has been accomplished partly through the efforts of my organization, and partly because of the legislation we are here to discuss today: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Before the Voting Rights Act was adopted, less than one-third of the Negro voting-age population of the South was registered to vote. The exact figure was 33.1 percent against a white registration of 73.2 percent of the white voting-age population.

In Alabama, less than one-fourth of the voting-age Negroes were registered to vote when the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Johnson, and in Mississippi the figure was an incredibly low 8.3 percent. In fact, in November of 1963, Mr. Chairman, the Voter Education Project reluctantly discontinued the funding of local registration drives in Mississippi because all the money and effort expended by these drives could get only a handful of Negroes registered to vote, and the results thus were running dishearteningly behind the efforts.

Today, 59.5 percent of the black population is registered to vote in the seven States covered by the 1965 act. There has been an increase of 897,000 Negroes registered to vote in these seven States. Nevertheless, black registration continues to run significantly behind white registration. White registration is 83.8 percent in the seven States covered.

The increase in white registration has been 1,058,000—or 161,000 more than the black increase. Let me quickly explain that when I speak of the 11 states covered, I am referring to the six States fully covered, and the State of North Carolina, which is covered to the extent of 39 counties. Let me also explain, just to clear up any misunderstandings, that I have used 1960 census figures on voting-age population, simply because these are the only official population figures available by race for the various political subdivisions of the South.

These 1960 census figures grow more outdated every minute, of course, but they remain useful as guideposts to the various levels of white and black registration.

The remarkable growth of black political strength in the South since 1965 has been amply described in the course of the debate on extension of the 1965 act. I am reviewing that growth briefly today, because my organization has been so much a part of it, and because I feel that it is such an important development in the recent history of the South.

Let me mention just one more statistic that is, like the others cited in this debate, the product of our organization: that is, the 540 black men and women who hold elected offices in the 11 Southern States. Many of these officials—indeed, the largest number of them—hold offices in the States covered by the act. I can assure you, in the strongest way I know how, that only a fraction of these officials could have been elected to office without the dramatic increases in black registration which have occurred over the last several years.

It is because of my first-hand knowledge of what has been accomplished under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and it is because of my first-hand knowledge of how much more needs to be accomplished, that I have felt deeply and most earnestly that the 1965 act should be extended. Indeed, I feel that the act not only should be extended, but also should be strengthened and put to more effective use than it has been.

Now, I am aware that the administration proposal would continue some provisions of the 1965 act and extend these provisions to the entire Nation. For example, the Attorney General still would have the power to send Federal examiners into the South to register voters, and would have the additional power to also send these Federal examiners to other parts of the country.

But one wonders how meaningful such a provision is when one looks at the number of counties designated for Federal examiners even under the present act. Under the present act, only 64 of the 556 southern counties covered have been designated for examiners. One questions whether if the time has come to expand the coverage of the act, when so little use has been made of the act even in the area presently covered.

Few southern black people, only recently enfranchised by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, will take comfort in knowing that a county in Illinois or Indiana can be designated for Federal examiners, when only two have been designated in South Carolina—and none in Virginia and North Carolina—under the current act. As a footnote, I might add that no county has been designated for Federal examiners during the current administration, which took office more than a year ago. I might also point out that the percentage of Negro registration remains extremely low in many counties to which no examiners have been sent.

In short, one wonders how examiners and observers are going to be sent all over the country when not even enough can be assigned in the Deep South, where the need for such examiners has been well-established by overwhelming statistical and historical evidence.

But putting all that aside, there remains an important and crucial difference between the present act and the administration bill. The difference, of course, is the deletion of section 5 of the present act, and the substitution of a new section that would be far less effective.

Section 5 of the present law requires any State or political subdivision covered by the act to submit any changes in election laws or procedures to the Attorney General for approval. This is an essential provision of the present act. Without that provision, the States covered could nullify the gains in black registration simply by adopting election laws and procedures that would render black votes ineffective—which is what some of the States and communities are trying to do anyway, as ably reported by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in its study, “Political Participation,” published in May of 1968.

If it had not been for section 5 of the present act, there is no telling to what extent the States and communities covered might have legislated and manipulated to continue their historical practice of excluding Negroes from the southern political process.

The administration proposal would remove the fragile 1965 wall of protection from around thousands of newly registered Negro voters in the South. If the Attorney General had “reason to believe” that a State, county, city, or town were using discriminatory laws or procedures, he could go to court and try to get a restraining order. Notice that the State, county, city, or town involved would not have to submit its changes in election laws and procedures to the Justice Department.

Rather, the Justice Department would have to seek out these changes. If the Attorney General—through intuition or hard information—felt that the changes were discriminatory, then he could, if he wished, file suit to prevent the use of these laws or procedures. A three-judge court would rule. At some date in the distant future, long after the new laws or procedures had been applied, and quite likely after several elections had been held, the three-judge court could find that the new procedures were indeed discriminatory and order them stopped.

Mr. Chairman, how would the Attorney General find out if the State, county, city, or town had adopted a discriminatory new procedure? Merely reading the changes in the State election code would not be enough. Southern lawmakers, administrative officials, and party officials are adept at their effort to deny the Negro the ballot. They have demonstrated their skill at evading and thwarting every effort to bring black people into the mainstream of southern life.

Our last information at the Voter Education project was that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has fewer than 100 lawyers to enforce all of the civil rights legislation on the books in all of the 50 States of the United States. This is, of course, an impossible task.

But if the task is impossible now, consider how much more impossible it would be if the administration bill is passed. Changes in election laws and procedures would not be mailed in by the Attorney General of Mississippi. Neither would they be mailed in by the city clerk of Selma, Ala.

They would not be submitted by the county commission of Baker County, Ga. Rather, the Justice Department, with its already small and overburdened staff, would have to seek out these discriminatory new procedures, investigate them, prepare a suit, and take them to court.

Mr. Chairman, this is not merely additional work for an already understaffed division of the Justice Department; it is an open invitation to the States, cities, counties, and towns covered by the Voting Rights Act to change their laws and procedures at will. The more the changes, the more the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department will have to pursue the changes.

Already civil rights laws are being ignored and flouted all over the South, particularly in remote rural areas. The theory was explicitly stated by a white man to one of our fieldworkers in southwest Georgia last summer: “It will take the Justice Department a hundred years to get down to a little county like ours.”

The administration proposal is a clear signal to officials of the white South: “Go back to your old ways. Even the meager enforcement machinery that already was there is being taken away. You need no longer fear interference from Washington in your treatment of black people in your communities. You need no longer worry about blacks being elected to your city and county offices.”

Mr. Chairman, for the last 4 years the voter education project has helped finance nearly 500 voter registration and citizenship education programs in 11 Southern States. Usually these are short programs lasting 6 or 8 weeks. In exchange for our funding, we require these programs to send us weekly reports. These reports, Mr. Chairman, provide some of the most fascinating and revealing reading as any to be found anywhere about what is going on the South today.

Many of these reports tell of harassment and intimidation of Negroes who fear that if they register to vote that they will be evicted from their farms or discharged from their jobs, or have their welfare checks cut off. Not even the present law and the present enforcement machinery can motivate thousands of southern Negroes to overcome the fear and the apprehension ingrained by generations of white oppression, to go to the courthouse to register, and later to vote.

Consider the report we received last November from Humphreys County, which is located in the Mississippi Delta, and in which a civil rights worker, George Lee, was shot to death in the courthouse square attempting to register in 1955.

In October of last year the project we supported in Humphreys County reported as follows:

People in this area still feel they will lose their jobs, or will have to move off the plantation with no place to go, or their welfare, social security, et cetera, checks will be cut off because this has happened in the past.

Later in October a field representative of the voter education project visited Humphreys County. He found that only a few days prior to his visit the plantation owner happened to show up at the courthouse precisely at the same time some of this tenants were arriving to register to vote. The plantation owner, who holds an office in the county, told the tenants that they had a choice between registering to vote and returning to the plantation.

This was reported to the Justice Department. In November came another report from the Humphreys County project saying: “Justice Department sent FBI’s into county last week to investigate. We have not gotten any results.” We talked to the Humphreys County registration leaders a few days ago, and they had heard nothing further from the Justice Department.

I quote these reports to indicate the slowness and general ineffectiveness of the present enforcement procedure. How much slower and how much more ineffective will the machinery be when the provisions of the act and the task facing the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department is spread, paper thin across the Nation?

How much more reluctant will black people be to overcome their ingrained fears when the word gets back to the crossroads, bayous and ghettos—as it gradually will—that Uncle Sam no longer will be looking over the shoulders of the Southern whites who control the election machinery of the region.

Already there are efforts to manipulate, gerrymander and baffle the black voters of the South. Predominantly black voting places suddenly are moved without notice on the eve of elections. Voters are shifted from one precinct to another without notification. District elections are changed to at-large elections so as to dilute the black vote. Political boundaries are redrawn, and elected offices are changed to appointive offices. Qualifying fees and other qualifications for seeking offices suddenly are changed in subtle ways designed to make it difficult for Negroes to run.

The same States that were the most efficient, determined, and malicious in their efforts to keep black people off the registration rolls can be expected to be the most efficient, determined, and malicious in their efforts to cancel out the growing black vote. Congress was mindful of this possibility when it put section 5 into the Voting Rights Act. If there were those who felt that the States covered by the act would repent and turn from their evil discriminatory traditions in 5 years, then those people were overly optimistic and sadly mistaken.

Mr. Chairman, I am a lifelong resident of one of the seven States covered by the Voting Rights Act. I am quite familiar with the atmosphere in my State and with the white supremacist attitudes of the politicians who tightly control local politics in my State, particularly in rural areas.

Moreover, Mr. Chairman, my position as director of the voter education project for the past 4 years has carried me into virtually every corner of the other six States. I have been in close contact with blacks at the grassroots level who are seeking to enter and use the political process in order to push for remedies to the injustices imposed on them at birth by a white-controlled society. I know—as well as any man in this room—that Canton and Grenada and Selma and Sandersville and hundreds of other southern communities stand poised and ready to eliminate the burgeoning black vote in their jurisdictions. The slightest flicker of a green light from Washington is all these white-dominated communities need. When they receive the signal, they will act.

More than mere politics is involved here. More than a few legislative seats and school board positions are at stake. In fact, the entire future of black people in the Deep South is at stake. I am sure I do not have to explain to this distinguished subcommittee that politics affect every aspect of our society.

Politics determine whose roads get paved; whose garbage gets collected; who gets job opportunities and what kind; and who gets good schools and who doesn’t. Indeed, more than one of the registration projects we have supported have told us in recent months that the level of black voter registration would influence whether or not schools in the community would be peacefully desegregated. . . .

When the attorney general of Mississippi appeared before the House Judiciary Committee last summer to ask that the Voting Rights Act not be extended, he made many interesting statements, according to the transcript. One was that Negroes “could go to the registrars of Mississippi and register themselves without fear.”

Mrs. [Taunya] Banks [Director of the Mississippi Center for Elected Officials] is among the thousands of Mississippi Negroes who would dispute that testimony, for she told us in a recent communication that she expects many Mississippi counties to require complete re-registration and she anticipates that “Many blacks will become disfranchised, since many county and city registrars still insist on intimidating prospective black registrants.”

Let me just say, Mr. Chairman, that we could, if we wished, fill this room many times over with black people who would refute the testimony of the attorney general of Mississippi.

Mr. Chairman, we live in a time, when many young black people are advising other blacks to give up working for change through the American political system. I must confess that there are many times when I can see the point of their advice. We live in a time when high governmental officials are insisting that everyone must work through the existing system. One wonders if these officials realize how insensitive that advice must sound to people who must risk their jobs, their livelihood and their well-being even to get their names on the list of registered voters.

When former President Johnson presented the Voting Rights Act to Congress in March of 1965, he said with determination: “We shall overcome.” But 5 years later the black voter in the South faces hostile southern white faces just as resourceful and recalcitrant now as they were then.

The new black voter, still substantially outnumbered by whites, must rely on help from Washington to preserve the tenuous gains that have been made. I personally believe, based on my experience and the facts presented here, that the proposal that passed the House will seriously, perhaps tragically, undermine the Federal support.

I hope the Senate will restore section 5 to its present form and do nothing that would weaken the present Voting Rights Act. Unless the Senate does so, I am convinced that the political process in the South will suffer a grievous setback.

Source: Amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 91st Congress, 1st and 2nd Sessions, S. 818, S 2456, S. 2507, and Title IV of S. 2029, July 9, 10, 11, and 30, 1969, February 18, 19, 24, 25, and 26, 1970. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970.