The year the Voting Rights Act was passed, Langston Hughes published Long View: Negro. "Sighted through the [t]elescope of dreams," Hughes wrote, Emancipation loomed very large:
"But turn the telescope around, Look through the larger end- And wonder why What was so large Becomes so small Again."
We don't really need to wonder why the political side of the First Reconstruction failed; there were so many reasons. One was the exhaustion of the national commitment to ensuring black equality and its replacement by a cynical bipartisan compromise in which black aspirations played no role. Another was the "progressive" belief that ethnic politics was the enemy of good government. Yet a third was the United States Supreme Court, which in a series of decisions from United States v. Cruikshank through Giles v. Harris gutted African Americans' ability to protect themselves through the political process.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is perhaps the cornerstone of the Second Reconstruction. President Johnson rightly called it "one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom." But it seems we are at a moment when the telescope is turning again; when the expansive future is about to become a contracted present. And the reasons for a potential Second Redemption bear a haunting resemblance to the explanations offered for the First. Again, we have an exhaustion of the national commitment to economic and racial justice for blacks; again, "progressives" are suggesting that attention to race has diverted us from more important issues; again, we have a Supreme Court that is hostile to minority political empowerment. When it comes to things in danger of becoming so small again, the black presence in Congress looms high on the list. The past five years have seen a sustained legal assault on newly created majority- black congressional districts in the South, and there is a very real possibility that for the first time since the end of the First Reconstruction, black representation in southern congressional delegations will decrease. In previous work, I have explained why I reject arguments that race-conscious districting involves discrimination Sam Issacharoff, and Rick Pildes gave me particularly extensive comments; and Gary Gansle provided superb research assistance.
Pamela S. Karlan,
Loss and Redemption: Voting Rights at the Turn of a Century,
50 Vanderbilt Law Review
Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/vlr/vol50/iss2/2