WASHINGTON (USATODAY.com) - When it comes to securing the right to vote, the March on Washington and the many protests it spawned in the South may have worked too well.
Within two years, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, creating an extraordinary solution to Southern discrimination that consigned some states and municipalities to federal supervision.
But 48 years after that, the Supreme Court noted this summer that the South has, in many ways, surpassed the North in terms of equality for African Americans. Black turnout exceeded white turnout nationally in the 2012 election, including in most of the states originally covered by the law.
"There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act," Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged. "The act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process."
So successful, in fact, that Roberts persuaded four of his conservative colleagues to join his opinion declaring the geographic coverage formula unconstitutional and rendering moot the law's most powerful weapon against voting discrimination.
His reason: Congress' continued reliance on 1960s registration and voting data and discriminatory practices to determine which states, in the words of Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, should be "under the trusteeship of the United States government."
The Roberts ruling was perhaps the most historic of the Supreme Court's term, despite the attention showered on the justices' two same-sex marriage decisions that followed. It fundamentally altered the playing field for Americans exercising their fundamental right to vote. Within hours, officials throughout the South vowed to implement voter-identification policies and others that had been blocked by the federal government.
When marchers return to the nation's capital this month, they will have a new cause - to put pressure on Congress to fortify the weakened Voting Rights Act with a revised coverage formula targeting what Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in dissent were "second-generation barriers" to voting.
"The court criticizes Congress for failing to recognize that 'history did not end in 1965.' But the court ignores that 'what's past is prologue,'" she said, quoting William Shakespeare. "And those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
'Perpetuation of racial entitlement'
What preceded the Voting Rights Act were a series of events no one wants to repeat: literary tests and poll taxes designed to block blacks from voting; beatings and jailings for those who defied racist authorities.
The law treated states differently, setting up an eventual constitutional challenge. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia emerged with what those states now consider a scarlet letter - a requirement to clear any changes in voting procedures with the Justice Department or a federal court. The law was reauthorized in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006 with only minor changes - most recently by votes of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House.
To Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, the lopsided votes only show that lawmakers are scared to vote against a law universally hailed as having reduced racial discrimination in the last half of the 20th century. During oral arguments in February, he called it "a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement."
Finally this year, the court's five conservative justices had had enough. "The tests and devices that blocked access to the ballot have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years," Roberts said in his opinion, issued in late June. And the Justice Department, which objected to one in seven proposed voting changes in the first decade after the law's enactment, now balks at fewer than one in 600.
Moreover, about 12,000 blacks have been elected to political office nationwide, including some of the largest numbers in Southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, which have the largest black populations. That's partially because the Justice Department has insisted on the creation of legislative districts with black or ethnic majorities.
In his opinion, Roberts noted that two southern cities with particularly woeful pasts - Philadelphia, Miss., and Selma, Ala. - now have black mayors. Philadelphia Mayor James Young credited his election to the changes brought about by the Voting Rights Act.
"Due to the history, without the federal intervention, we would not have what we have today," he told USA TODAY in February. "Whether it's overbearing now, I'm not here to judge. I'm just here to say I am a recipient of what fair-voting laws should do, and that is give every individual a level field."
But to civil rights veterans, including some who marched on Washington a half century ago, events such as the Shelby decision show the need for increased vigilance.
"This has been a really, really tough summer for race and civil rights, and people are really hurting," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "People want an expression. They want to articulate a different vision of America."
Texas seizes opportunity
Last year's election cycle, while lacking in the violence and fear tactics that characterized the 1960s, did feature what civil rights groups call state efforts at electoral subterfuge. In Texas, Florida and South Carolina, the Voting Rights Act was used to help block photo ID laws, redistricting maps and limits on early voting that could have disadvantaged minorities.
Within hours of the court ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, announced plans to implement a voter ID law previously blocked by the Voting Rights Act. Other states also prepared to move ahead with laws requiring new forms of ID at the polls, limiting early-voting hours and restricting voter-registration drives.
Attorney General Eric Holder last month went to court in an attempt to require Texas to get approval from the federal government before making changes to the state's voting process.
"This is the department's first action to protect voting rights (since the Supreme Court decision), but it won't be our last," Holder said. "We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many throughout history have sacrificed so much to achieve."
The state efforts may not be motivated by race, but by politics - with race as a casualty. "A lot of this is about maintaining political power," said Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University Law School. As a result, he said, the Voting Rights Act, like the 15th Amendment - which guaranteed the right to vote cannot be denied based on race, color or previous servitude - may be needed forever to prevent as well as remediate discrimination.