Along Racial Lines by David micheal Hudson



In Hudson?s ambitious study he identifies two major temporal consequences of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA): one good, one bad. First, the VRA, part of President Johnson?s Great Society initiative, increased the democratic participation of blacks by ensuring them equal access to voting booths in Southern states. Second, racist intimidation in the form of invidiously administered literacy tests, constitutional interpretation tests and other obstacles imposed by whites had prevented blacks from registering to vote in many Southern states (most notoriously Mississippi).
Fortification of the 15th amendment was, in Hudson?s view, accomplished within the first five years of the VRA, as black registration in the South increased from 29% in 1965 to 56% in 1970. What followed on the heels of this victory, however, was nothing short of the accelerated unraveling of Martin Luther King?s dream of racial assimilation. Never mind that King?s "dream" was more complicated than simplistic assimilation. Today we live the nightmare of a society hemmed "along racial lines.
Who is to blame? To a large extent, Hudson?s culprits are civil rights leaders who have stretched the original intent of the VRA to encompass "affirmative action" measures such as race-based redistricting and bilingual ballots. Consequently, race-based segregation calcifies and racial "sensitivities" proliferate in an atmosphere of "political correctness." And Hudson watches a good plan go sour. "They [civil rights leaders] drove Congress to extend its [the VRA?s] life and amend its scope every few years and were aided by federal courts who interpreted the act and its constitutional underpinnings in the broadest, most encompassing ways. The Voting Rights Act evolved into an affirmative action program that contradicted the dream of assimilation."
While this is not a new argument, Hudson?s effort to make his case is novel and intriguing. In addition to providing a thorough and thus extremely informative account of the legislative history, the political debates and the role played by federal courts in shaping the 1965 VRA and its subsequent amendments and extensions, Hudson engages in a comparative study of how these developments played out in three particular communities. He chooses Dallas, Texas to represent "the struggle for blacks for representation in city government," Dade County, Florida to depict "the assumption of power by Hispanic immigrants," and the Navajo Reservation in Arizona to show "changes in the political influence of the largest tribe of Native Americans."
The first two chapters give a clear and concise primer on the nuts and bolts of U.S. elections, a good introduction for those new to the field of voting rights and a handy refresher for everyone else. Bullet notes on key terms such as multi-member/at large districts, annexations and district boundaries also helped. Other chapters began with the political and legislative history of successive steps in what Hudson calls the "voting-rights journey" and go on to supplement those histories with stories from Dallas, Arizona and Dade County. These stories from the "field" put human faces on the larger narrative Hudson relates. In early chapters Hudson weaves these two techniques together brilliantly, infusing the events leading up to the passage of the VRA with the specific histories of blacks in Dallas, Hispanics in Dade County and Native Americans on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.
This methodology loses some of its steam in later chapters, however, as Hudson focuses more and more intently on the personal idiosyncrasies of individual civil rights leaders and players that seem irrelevant to the bigger picture he is trying to paint. For example, in the course of describing a 1988 law suit against the city of Dallas alleging that single-member districts should supplant multi-member districts to increase minority voting power, Hudson portrays Roy Williams, one of the plaintiffs, in the following way: "Roy Williams, a six-foot-six, forty-seven-year-old black, was a self-employed Dallas businessman who had run for city council but had been defeated by a white candidate in an at-large race. He had been found guilty of driving while intoxicated three times, but later claimed to have had a spiritual awakening which led him into counseling others for substance abuse. He lived in a north Dallas condominium, ate at the French bakery near SMU, and toted a book bag filled with books on spiritualism and philosophy. Williams described himself as