Forty-one years ago, on Jan. 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson placed a phone call to congratulate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on his 36th birthday - but mainly to strategize about how they could win a monumental victory for equal rights. King was in Selma, Ala., where he had just launched a dramatic campaign to show how blacks in the Deep South were being denied the right to vote. He had chosen Selma because of that city's notorious success in blocking its black residents from the polls. Those who dared to attempt to register risked their lives. They endured bloody beatings, lost their jobs, saw their homes and churches bombed. Some were brutally murdered.
"There is not going to be anything, Doctor, as effective as all (black citizens) voting," the president told King in that birthday call. "That will give you a message that all the eloquence in the world won't bring, because the candidate or elected official will be coming to you then, instead of you calling him."
"You're exactly right about that," King replied. "It is so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers. It would be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate white vote that would really make the New South."
After a brilliant political campaign orchestrated by the president and the preacher, Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law swept away the most brazen tactics used to keep minorities from the polls. Millions of black citizens surged onto voter registration rolls throughout the South. The ballot power of those new voters - combined with the 1964 Civil Rights Act's prohibition against segregation and employment discrimination - ushered in the hopeful beginnings of the kind of New South that King and Johnson had envisioned.
Civility replaced official repression and terrorism. Hundreds of blacks won public office at all levels, including in Congress, where Artur Davis, a Harvard-educated lawyer, now represents the Alabama district that includes Selma. A growing black and Hispanic middle class has prospered in the South and Southwest.
But despite the enormous gains, old problems persist. The winds of Hurricane Katrina blew away the veil shielding complacent eyes from the desperate poverty of the blacks in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. And a Texas congressional redistricting dispute now before the Supreme Court has cast a spotlight on the lengths to which politicians will go for narrow partisan advantage - even disenfranchising minority voters.
Masterminding the controversial redistricting plan approved in 2003, then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, shuffled thousands of black and Hispanic voters between Texas congressional districts like pawns on a chessboard. With mathematical efficiency, DeLay redrew voting district boundaries to ensure that Republicans would gain five additional House seats. His goal: to further cement his own power and Republican control of the House of Representatives.
In Dallas and Austin, Republicans won new congressional seats after the DeLay map broke up large concentrations of urban black and Hispanic Democratic voters, then scattered them thinly throughout other Republican-dominated districts - many extending into rural areas far from the voters' homes. These maneuvers violated standard redistricting principles, such as trying to maintain geographically compact districts and respecting county and city boundaries.
Gerrymandering for partisan advantage is almost as old as the nation itself. But the Voting Rights Act, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, forbids state and local governments from creating districts that clearly reduce the ability of minority voters to elect "candidates of their choice." Civil rights organizations that have appealed the Texas redistricting contend that it violates the 1965 law, stripping away the ability of tens of thousands of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice.
A large majority of black and Hispanic voters regularly favor Democratic candidates. Therefore, Republican politicians, particularly in Southern and Southwestern states, have used redistricting to break the minorities' power to help elect Democrats. Democrats, in turn, have sought to manipulate the minority voter pool to elect as many from their party as possible - both minority and white candidates. Caught in this crossfire, black and Hispanic Democrats at times have made tacit "devil's bargains" with their Republican foes, in which they ensure at least some victories for themselves in districts with heavy minority populations. These "pragmatic" Democrats also ensure Republican victories in heavily white districts.
The Supreme Court has the opportunity to reaffirm and clarify the central purposes of the Voting Rights Act. And Congress can and should honor King's memory by renewing important parts of the voting rights law that otherwise will expire next year, thus advancing his ideal of a more representative democracy.