To kick off Radcliffe Day, and in celebration of the work and life of the 2014 medalist, Drew Gilpin Faust, the Radcliffe Institute organized “From Civil War to Civil Rights: The Unending Battle to Vote.” In her introduction to the panel, Dean Lizabeth Cohen pointed out the connections that made the topic particularly fitting: the influence that the civil rights movement has had on Faust— and on her award-winning scholarship on the American South—and the political, legal, and social parallels between the Civil War era and the modern civil rights movement.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act may have been a triumph, but a 2013 Supreme Court decision struck down the portion of the act that calls for federal approval of voting laws and regulations in municipalities with a history of voter discrimination. In its wake, many states—including Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas—have enacted measures, such as voter ID and redistricting, that suppress minority participation.
Reporting from what he called “the front lines of the struggle for voting rights in the United States”—North Carolina—was Robert Korstad, the Kevin D. Gorter Professor of Public Policy and History at Duke University. During the past few years, said Korstad, the state has been at the epicenter of a well-funded, systematic effort to disenfranchise African American and Latino voters, which culminated last summer in the passage of a comprehensive election reform bill that required voter ID, limited early voting, and did away with same-day registration. He and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall RI ’04—his wife and the Julia Cherry Spruill Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (for whom, owing to an injury, he was substituting)—have been leaders in the grassroots Moral Monday Movement in their home state, even risking arrest for civil disobedience by demonstrating against the general assembly’s efforts.
Injecting a bit of optimism into the proceedings, Tony Horwitz RI ’06, a journalist and the author of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1999) and Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War (2012), said that he views current efforts to suppress voting rights as a doomed, last-ditch assault on all that the civil rights movement achieved. The American South is changing, with some suburbs “integrating so rapidly that legislators can no longer gerrymander quickly enough to keep up,” he said.
Providing a historical perspective, Darlene Clark Hine RI ’04, the Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies and a professor of history at Northwestern University, detailed the evolution of African American enfranchisement—from challenges to the Texas white primary law to the ultimate passage of the Voting Rights Act. Lani Guinier ’71, the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, pointed out a fundamental problem with the power that states wield by determining who may or may not vote: The decision applies to federal as well as state elections. She called the distribution of power in the United States “limited and inflexible” as she described voting laws in Canada and Germany. In Canada, for example, census takers also register voters.
In framing the conversation, the moderator, Daniel Carpenter—who is the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government and director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard and director of the social sciences program in Radcliffe’s Academic Ventures—made a chilling observation.
“It is worth noting," Carpenter said, "that the voting rights regression . . . is taking place at a time when other kinds of citizens—quite literally, in recent law, those citizens formed by chartered corporations—are gaining unprecedented authorities and powers in public life.”