Before the end of June, the court will decide the constitutionality of race as a factor used inadmissions at the University of Texas. The justices also will rule on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states and smaller jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing election procedures.
Some justices on the conservative-leaning court have openly questioned or criticized the continued need for special protections for minority voters. And although the court upheld racially conscious admission policies in 2001, multiple lower-court rulings and state laws have narrowed or banned such affirmative action practices at public universities.
Both cases threaten the legacy of Evers, the NAACP’s first field secretary in 1950s’ Mississippi, whose work became a model for many successful challenges of Jim Crow laws across the South. He was the first known African American to apply to the University of Mississippi School of Law; he helped James Meredith integrate the university as an undergraduate student; he sued the city of Jackson, Miss., to desegregate its public schools; and he called for equal access to city jobs and accommodations. Evers also registered blacks to vote.
The lawsuit challenging the Voting Rights Act also threatens the legacy of Attorney General Eric Holder, who spoke at the wreath-laying ceremony for Evers at Arlington National Cemetery. Holder is the named defendant in the lawsuit because the Justice Department enforces the Voting Rights Act.
The Justice Department has aggressively used Section 5 to block a wave of Republican-led state laws over the past couple of years, such as photo-identification requirements for voters, arguing that the measures would disproportionately harm minorities.
Holder has defended his agency’s efforts and cites as one of his most important accomplishments the rebuilding of the Justice Department’s civil rights division following the Bush administration. At Arlington last week, Holder praised Evers as a pioneer who laid the groundwork for many of the civil rights gains of the past 50 years.
“We pledge that we will never forget the man, the foundation that he laid, nor his broad shoulders that made possible the election of the first African-American president and the selection of the first African-American attorney general,” Holder said.
Evers was 37 when he was fatally shot by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith on June 12, 1963. De la Beckwith was convicted of the murder in 1994, 30 years after two all-white juries deadlocked in previous trials.
Evers’ death drew national attention and acted as a catalyst for the civil rights movement. It added urgency to the televised address given by President John F. Kennedy, who just a day earlier had called racial discrimination a “moral crisis” and announced his plan to send Congress a desegregation bill.
A year later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination in employment and public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 and is widely regarded as the most effective civil rights law in U.S. history.
“The next time you hear people complaining around Washington about what a rough business democracy is, we might do well to remember what it was like 50 years ago and the sacrifices that were made,” former President Bill Clinton said at the Arlington ceremony.
In Evers’ home state on Wednesday, a service will be held at the Mississippi Museum of Art. A party to raise money for the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute is scheduled for that evening in Jackson. On Thursday, a statue of Evers will be dedicated at his alma mater, Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss.
Meanwhile, several civil rights and political groups are working on reaction plans and mobilizing supporters for demonstrations ahead of the Supreme Court decisions.
In Alabama on Friday, state leaders and others, such as Minister Louis
Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, will lead a caravan in support of voting rights through the state’s civil rights landmarks. Stops will include the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and Shelby County, where plaintiffs filed the lawsuit challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations.