Civil rights groups suffered major setbacks on Tuesday after the heart of the landmark civil-rights law that protects minority voters was effectively gutted by the Supreme Court.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act , which required many Southern states to obtain pre-clearance before making any changes to voting laws. Although the ruling does state that pre-clearance still stands, it functionally halts that part of the law until Congress can draw up a new set of guidelines to determine which areas are subject to federal oversight.
"This is a devastating blow to Americans, particularly African-Americans, who are now at the mercy of state governments," Rev. Al Sharpton, PoliticsNation host and civil rights activist said in a statement released through the National Action Network. "Given last year’s attempts by states to change voting rules, it is absurd to say that we do not need these protections."
Sharpton also vowed to continue the fight, noting the efforts that brought about the civil rights achievements of the 1960's were set in motion by activism. "It was a people's movement from the bottom up," he said on msnbc Tuesday. "And that's what's going to have to happen now."
"James Crow Jr. Esquire is doing Jim Crow work today," he added.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, echoed that sentiment.
"The Supreme Court has stabbed the Voting Rights Act in the heart. The White House and Congress must speak out as they are direct beneficiaries of the act and must assume leadership," he said in a statement released on his Facebook page. "Democracy is just 48 years old. It began in Selma 1965. This decision is designed to unravel 48 years of progress."
Many legally-focused civil rights organizations also spoke out against the ruling, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which defended the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court, and called today's ruling "an act of extraordinary judicial overreach."
"The Supreme Court ruling takes the most powerful tool our nation has to defend minority voting rights out of commission." Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP LDF, said in a statement. "By second-guessing Congress’ judgment about which places should be covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Court has left millions of minority voters without the mechanism that has allowed them to stop voting discrimination before it occurs.
"This is like letting you keep your car, but taking away the keys," she added. "To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. Congress must step in."
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which represented one of the defendant-interveners in the case, criticized the decision as well.
"The Supreme Court has effectively gutted one of the nation's most important and effective civil rights laws. Minority voters in places with a record of discrimination are now at greater risk of being disenfranchised than they have been in decades," Jon Greenbaum, Chief Counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights said in a statement. "Today's decision is a blow to democracy. Jurisdictions will be able to enact policies which prevent minorities from voting, and the only recourse these citizens will have will be expensive and time-consuming litigation."
"This decision disregards the documented history of ongoing voting discrimination in the covered states and paralyzes Section 5, which has blocked thousands of racially discriminatory voting practices and procedures before they could ever take effect," Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights President and Executive Director Barbara Arnwine added in a statement. "Civil rights and civic organizations must now unite with the American people – fighting new discriminatory voting laws lawsuit by lawsuit and state by state—until Congress acts decisively to replace what has been one of the most effective civil rights laws ever passed."
For Rev. Sharpton, Tuesday's decision has helped define the focus of the commemorative march honoring the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, which he says "will now be centered around the protection and restoring of voter protection."
"This ruling has in effect revoked one of Dr. King’s greatest achievements, the teeth of the Voting Rights Acts,” he added.