Kai: This is the United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Terry Moran: With states across the country passing new laws that make voting more difficult especially for minorities, the Supreme Court today gave a green light.
William Barber: This is not simply Jim Crow. This is James Crow Esquire.
John King: Republicans have decided we don't like what happened in 2020. We made it easier to vote by mail, we made it easier to vote early. We've made it easier in a number of ways to try to encourage people to vote and guess what they did.
Bob Kafka: Register, vote but most importantly, use your power.
Joanne Bland: I thought this would be over when I was a little girl by now, but it's not.
Stacey Abrams: It's no longer hoses and laws that say you cannot vote. It is this insidious nature that says it's race-neutral.
Lyndon B. Johnson: We have already waited 100 years and more and the time for waiting is gone.
Kai: Welcome to the show, I'm Kai Wright. On August 6th, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. And any fair reading of American history would have to conclude that this law was among the most consequential ever to pass through Congress. At the time, it was a consensus measure. One public-opinion poll that year found more than 90% of people supported. Even in the South, a big portion of white people were behind it.
This is no doubt because the civil rights movement had so effectively dramatized the stakes. They had shown just how much violence the white-power structure was willing to deploy to keep Black people from voting. That violence was typically a last recourse. The first line of attack was technocratic, dressed up in rules and procedures that on their face had nothing to do with racism. Listen to how President Johnson described these bureaucratic weapons against democracy. Here's a bit of his address to Congress in March of 1965, about a week after the bloody attack on voting rights marchers in Selma, Alabama.
President Johnson: Every device of which human ingenuity is capable, has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. If he persists and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application. If he manages to fill out an application, he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire constitution or explain the most complex provisions of state law.
Kai: If you have followed the current debate over voting rights, some of what LBJ describes there might sound familiar. Like arcane rules normally meant to protect the integrity of the voting process, but that are actually precision-targeted at Black people and these days at immigrants and youth. Really, anybody perceived to be a democratic voter. You've certainly heard about the bills sweeping through Republican-led state legislatures in reaction to the 2020 Election outcome.
A Supreme Court ruling earlier this month makes it pretty clear that there's no viable way to challenge those laws in court. It was the second major High Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act since 2013. Taken together, these two rulings seem to me, at least, to be a death blow for the law. This hour, we're going to try to get our heads around where multiracial democracy stands right now, and really try to take in the very short 55-year life of this law. How we got it, what it meant and what it's going to mean to live without it.
To start, I'm joined by one of my favorite Supreme Court watchers. Mark Joseph Stern covers courts and the law for slate, and he's author of the book, American Justice 2019: The Roberts Court Arrives. Mark, thanks for joining us.
Mark: Thanks so much for having me on.
Kai: Before we get into voting rights, in particular, I'm wondering about your general takeaways from this recent Supreme Court session. Whether it pretty much matched your experiences or surpassed them perhaps in some way. This has been our first look at the court with its full Trump makeover, right?
Mark: Yes, that's right. I've seen some end-of-term recaps that suggest this is a more moderate court than we expected. Or not so conservative, despite it six to three conservative majority. A court that's more unanimous than the average person might anticipate, but I respectfully disagree with those assessments. This term produced a number of very conservative decisions, many of which spurred a six to three divide with the six conservative justices in the majority.
Yes, there were some unanimous cases, some lopsided decisions involving major issues that draw a lot of controversy, but for the most part, in the really big cases. Stuff like the Voting Rights Act case, the court did divide along those ideological or political lines, if you will, and the conservatives went sort of maximalist. I think that the voting rights case, which is called Brnovich versus DNC is really the most important case of the term because as the Supreme Court said more than 100 years ago, voting is the one right preservative of all other rights. When the Supreme Court's conservatives undermine the right to vote, they're really undermining our democracy itself.
Kai: Well, we're going to get to it. I do want to try to get my head around this court a little more first, before we dive into those details. It was a bit of a loaded question I was asking you because I know I've read one piece you wrote about how far this court went and it was surprising to you. I think I'm specifically talking about a case where you said it was too extreme for even Clarence Thomas, this is the TransUnion versus Ramirez case. In very brief, very layman's terms, can you tell us what this case is about and why the ruling to you was so extreme?
Mark: Yes, I'm so glad you brought that case up because this is the kind of case that is a little bit technical and a little bit complicated and so it tends to pass by without a lot of notice. To me, it was very much a blockbuster and really a devastating blow to civil rights in this country. Basically, this is a case about whether Congress has the power to create new rights and to enforce them through the Federal Courts.
The question here was about, to oversimplify it a bit, whether Congress can give Americans a right not to be falsely labeled a terrorist on their credit report. There's a law that was passed many decades ago, where Congress forced credit reporting agencies to put up all of these processes and rules to make sure that they would not incorrectly label someone a terrorist. That they revealed to individuals who they've labeled a terrorist that they've been flagged, and to give them a way to work around that.
A bunch of people went into court, more than 6,000 actually, and said, "Hey, we were falsely labeled as terrorists, and then this agency, TransUnion refused to even tell us that we were falsely labeled as terrorists. Hid this information from us and according to Congress, we have a right to sue in Federal Court to recover damages." Now these individuals, in particular, the ones I'm talking about. They were never actually denied credit because of this false label.
Some other people were, they couldn't get a car, whatever. These people, they only learned after the fact, in discovery, that they had been labeled terrorists. They said, "Look, this was something Congress wanted to prevent, and one of the ways that Congress wanted to prevent it was by letting us sue the agency that labels us falsely." The Supreme Court turns around and by a five to four vote, says that those individuals are not allowed to sue in Federal Court.
Notwithstanding the fact that Congress has decided that they are injured and that they have a right, because according to Brett Kavanaugh's majority opinion, only the Supreme Court gets to decide what counts as an injury that justifies a lawsuit in Federal Court. Not Congress, not the President, not the people's representatives. Five justices on the Supreme Court are the only people who get to decide what counts as an injury, what counts as harm.
Clarence Thomas dissented from that decision. It's an incredible opinion, one of his best I think. Not just because I agree with it, but because he explains that this is an anti-originalist view. This directly flouts the views of the very first Congress back in 1789 and more than two centuries of precedent set by both Congress and the courts. This is the new conservative Supreme Court trying to lock Americans out of the Federal Courthouse by saying that Congress doesn't get to decide when they deserve new rights.
This isn't just about data privacy, although it matters here. This is about environmental laws. This is about anti-espionage laws. This is about all manner of laws that Congress has passed and said, "If your rights are violated under this law, you can sue." The Supreme Court had said, "No, you can't." That will kick hundreds of thousands if not millions of people out of Federal Court.
Kai: I bring that up, and that is a useful recap to just give us a sense of where this court stands on making claims about your rights. Let's try to talk about the Voting Rights Act here and I don't want to get too far into the legal weeds, but I want to really make sure everybody understands the big picture. This most recent court ruling, this is the Roberts Court's second major ruling on the law. Let's just digest those two big rulings and what they've done. The first big ruling in 2013, I believe, got rid of what's called pre-clearance, to remind everybody that's the core enforcement function of the law, which said basically, if you had a history of voter suppression, you couldn't change your rules without permission from the Feds. Remind people, Mark, what the court said about this.
Mark: The court said in that decision, which is called Shelby County Versus Holder, that pre-clearance violated what John Roberts called the equal dignity of the states. Basically, you had the Federal government overseeing the election laws of about nine states and several other jurisdictions. Of course, vetoing laws that would have suppressed minority votes because these states had this horrible history of Jim Crow disenfranchisement, but John Roberts said, well, actually things have changed since back then. It's 2013, it's not 1965. We don't think that Congress looked closely enough to find out if there's still racism in these jurisdictions.
So, we think that Congress has mistreated a handful of states by forcing them to undergo a special process, just to pass their own election laws. We think that violates their dignity and their sovereignty, so we're going to essentially dismantle this pre-clearance requirements. As soon as that happens, literally dozens and dozens of voter suppression laws are on the floor of statehouses around the country. I think North Carolina and Texas had passed voter ID bills within hours. That was really the opening the flood gates moment for our current status of disenfranchisement.
Kai: Then the second ruling, which was given earlier this month, as you said, it was after a voting rights challenge to Arizona's new laws. Basically, the court set a really high bar on showing racial discrimination, explain what changed and why it matters, and again, we've got to get to break. Give us the sharpest layman's terms answer you can.
Mark: The sharpest answer is this law, what's left of the Voting Rights Act, it understands, it reflects an understanding that racist legislators don't always go on the house floor and say, I hate Black people and I'm passing this law so they can't vote. They often hide their intent. The Voting Rights Act has something called a results test that says, "Look, if you're challenging a voter suppression law, you don't have to prove racist intent. You just have to prove that the law has a disproportionate impact on racial minorities, and it makes it disproportionately difficult for racial minorities to cast a vote."
What justice Samuel Alito does in his majority opinion in this most recent case is really gut that section got the results test and make it essentially impossible for any plaintiff to ever prove again, that there is a law that results in a truly disproportionate impact on racial minorities, in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Kai: We'll take a break and we'll come back with Mark Joseph Stern, and we will talk about what all that adds up to. This is the United States of Anxiety. We'll be right back.
Lyndon B. Johnson: No law that we now have on the books — and I have helped to put three of them there — [applause] can ensure the right to a vote when local officials are determined to deny, in such a case, our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath.
Sonia Sotomayor: May I ask you a question, assuming I accept your premise, and there's some question about that. Some portions of the South have changed, your county pretty much hasn't. In the period we're talking about, it has many more discriminating, 240 discriminatory voting laws that were blocked by Section 5 objections. There were a numerous remedy by Section 2 litigation. You may be the wrong party bringing this.
Bert Rein: Well, this is an on-face challenge, and I might've said [crosstalk]--
Sotomayor: Why would we vote in favor of a county whose record is the epitome of what caused the passage of this law to start with?
Kai: Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety, I'm Kai Wright, and that was Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor during oral arguments in Shelby V Holder. The case that led to the court's first big ruling back in 2013, that significantly weaken the Voting Rights Act. I'm still joined by Mark Joseph Stern, who covers the Supreme Court for slate and has chronicled the legal journey of the Roberts court on a range of social justice questions, including Voting Rights.
Mark, for me, the core question here is the premise of this hour, is that is this the obituary for the Voting Rights Act? Is this, do all the details that you gave us leading into in before the break, do they add up to this being a dead-letter law? How do you feel about that?
Mark: Yes, I think so, the one caveat I would say is that there's a separate provision of the VRA that explicitly bands the tests that LBJ was summarizing in the intro literacy tests and the like, those are still banned. Otherwise, I really do think it's open season because what the Supreme Court has done in this most recent decision is rewrites the law that Congress passed, fundamentally overhaul the law to totally defang it, and really ensure that essentially no plaintiff will ever be able to win one of these cases again, by just really stacking the deck in favor of the state.
Kai: It's striking because it's such a frontal challenge to the law. It's not like this is tinkering away at the edges. It's really brazen and straightforward. I wonder, what does this have to do with John Robert's long history with this? I know he's been concerned with the Voting Rights Act for decades, right?
Mark: Yes. We're talking here about the results test, which bars laws that result in a disproportionate disenfranchisement of racial minorities, that was passed in 1982, Congress actually amended the law because it felt this was necessary. John Roberts was a young attorney at the justice department back then, and he lobbied hard against this amendment. He really fought to get President Reagan to shoot down this amendment to try to pressure Congress, not to pass it because he felt that it would be unconstitutional, that it would be unwise, that it would encroach on, again, the sovereignty of the states.
This recent decision is really kind of like a vindication for John Roberts, because you see in the majority opinion, a deep and profound concern for state's rights to regulate elections and to limit who is allowed to access the ballot and absolutely no concern for everyone's ability, regardless of race to cast a vote. This court really seems to think that that voter suppression doesn't exist
Kai: Well, in some, and I'm going to translate a call from Tulis in Harlem because we don't have time to really get it in what can be done at this point. There are two bills before Congress, do either of them strike you as solutions?
Mark: Yes, in theory, both For The People Act in the John Lewis Act would both patch the holes that the Supreme Court has poked in the Voting Rights Act. The problem is that both of them would almost certainly be struck down, in whole or in part, by the same Supreme Court. These laws are trying to do what the Supreme Court has essentially said is unconstitutional. I think that if Congress were really serious about this, they would have to pass a court expansion bill alongside these Voting Rights Acts and allow president Biden to rebalance the court. Because, with this six, three majority, I see almost no chance that any of the major provisions of these proposed laws would survive.
Kai: Even setting aside the politics of the Senate, setting aside all of that, actually the court would still overrule it.
Mark: I absolutely think so. That's why I think it's a little bit odd that there's so much focus on the filibuster here. I understand why that's the talk of the hour, but the reality here is that the moment these laws were passed in this alternate reality where they can be they would be challenged and the Supreme Court, I think, would very swiftly block them and eventually execute them.
Kai: Wow. Well, we will have to leave it there. Mark Joseph Stern covers the Supreme Court for slate. He's the author of American Justice 2019: The Roberts Court Arrives. Mark, thank you.
Mark: Thank you so much for having me on.
Kai: Thanks to the New York City Municipal archives for the recording of President Johnson we played earlier. We're going to turn our attention to history now. It's so easy to imagine the worst of American apartheid as the distant past, but the multiracial democracy in the United States is really quite young. It's really just a few generations since the Voting Rights Act so dramatically expanded the franchise.
Earlier this year, journalist Vann Newkirk wrote an essay in The Atlantic that really helped give some emotional texture to that fact, to this so, so recent history and how fleeting progress can be. I spoke with him earlier today about that essay and here is our conversation. Hey Vann, thanks for joining us.
Vann: Thanks for having me.
Kai: You begin your essay by talking to your mother and you're thinking about her birth, which you say is just barely predates the birth of real democracy in the United States. When was she born?
Vann: She was born, actually two days ago it was her birthday, so July 9th, 1964.
Kai: That's one year before the Voting Rights Act becomes law. I have often thought about something similar for my own parents. I'm a little older than you. I think about the fact that my parents were just coming of age as the Voting Rights Act came into existence, so they were the first generation of Black people to have widespread access to democracy. It's so recent yet, culturally and politically it just seems so distant in our conversation now.
Vann: Right. When I think about the fact that say my grandparents, the people who helped raise me, who I was always up under that they were the people who would have remembered, who would have been adults when this change happened. Then my great-grandmother who— I knew four of my great-grandparents pretty well, and to think about the fact that most of them were grandparents by the time they were able to vote legally, that's just— When you put it like that, it really gives it perspective.
Kai: This is in Mississippi, your mom was born in Mississippi. Also in her youth, she saw the worst of it as Black people tried to make this law real and as the white-power structure and the state tried to make it irrelevant. As she raised you, was that part of your conversation? What did she teach you about the Movement history in Mississippi?
Vann: It actually wasn't until later when I started being interested in the movement myself, that I got all the lessons about it. I think she was afraid of traumatizing. We've got stories. My family is from Greenwood, Mississippi, they're from all around the Delta in Mississippi, so I have family who knew Emmett Till's folks. The day Emmett Till was killed was a day that my family still had him mourning while I was a kid.
I never really understood what those things meant, and I think it was because she was trying to shield me from it. It wasn't until I started learning about looking at it in class, when I would come on and ask my mom what was happening. She would tell me stories about, she was born in this shotgun house right down the street from where Freedom Summer was being executed.
Kai: You write in the essay, addressing your mom. You say, "You always reminded me of the precariousness and the novelty of this experiment of the fact that I had been granted a franchise that wasn't even yours when you were born. I guess the point is having lived through the onset of democracy, she saw firsthand how fragile the whole thing was at the start. Right?
Vann: Right. She was really concerned with I guess what you might call ‘civic-hygiene’ today, with ensuring that people she knew got out and exercise the right to vote. She did not ever miss an election that I know of and that is at every level. She was out there municipal elections. She was out there, of course, every four years for the presidential, for all the midterms, and people knew her.
People at the precinct knew her. The Black volunteers, who I presume had the same understanding of history, they knew her. She told everybody around her she was going out to vote. She thought it was important that you went out to vote. She thought it was important that you volunteer in your community and how she gave back to hers, she taught. She believed that one way that we ensured our way— I didn't really interpret it as precariousness until later, but she was so concerned with people always minding their role in this democracy and promoting it, and being active stewards of their communities.
Kai: Your own first time voting in that regard was in 2008, you write. SO, hen Barack Obama was elected, of course, and you called your mom crying on election night. What was your conversation that night?
Vann: That night meant so much to her, and just because it meant so much to her, it meant so much to me. I hadn't really heard her speak so openly about this. You talked about how she never thought she'd see in her lifetime, a Black president. How it wasn't something that she even ever thought could be possible. She remembers the Jesse-Jackson Rainbow-Coalition run for president. I remember that being the closest she thought that America would ever get, and he lost pretty handily in the primary. She just assumed there would be no way when she saw Obama become a candidate. She just did not believe, she not really believed until the returns came on election night and meant a lot for her.
Kai: She was 44 years old, again, that's the age of our democracy at the time. She was born a year before the Voting Rights Act came into presence. Barely one middle-aged of a lifetime, when Barack Obama is elected.
Vann: Right. You think about how recent that is, how many people who voted in an election had— Were not just children like she was, who had actually seen up close the teeth of Jim Crow and what it meant for them.
Kai: This is why the whole conversation to me. It's just so easy to make it a partisan question, Democrats, and Republicans. To me just feels like such an inadequate framework for what we're talking about. That night one generation removed from American apartheid at that point, it's just so much more than about a Democrat winning office that night. How do you think about this in terms of how we frame this as a partisan issue?
Vann: I think one of the saddest things about that moment, about 2008, about the Black vote generally in the last few elections is it has been almost purely the topic of a partisan conversation. Obviously, Obama, everything he did, he gave $2 billion to Black farmers in the Black farmers lawsuit, and that became "Reparations" and it was a bad thing. You never really got a chance to step back from it and say, "What does it mean that, for the first time since reconstruction, Black turnout approached and even surpassed white turnout over an election?" What does that mean for what type of place we think this country is.
I don't think we even were able to have that conversation even through Obama, because so much of his public interaction was trying to get around or through or past the perception that he was illegitimate, that those voters were legitimate, that he somehow catered to, or pandered to Black votes in a way that made him illegitimate. There was never any chance to appreciate beyond even the candidate himself, what it meant that Black people were— That their will was being honored in politics, because that doesn't happen.
Kai: What did it mean?
Vann: To me means it's maybe if you consider a democracy one where your vote matters, where you have the vote and where it matters, and where you can get the outcomes that you want. Now we have to understand that representation isn't everything, of course, of course, but when people did think that the ultimate expression of Black politics was Black politicians, and that's been the case for a long time.
You could not have added a democracy until Black politicians are being elected, until the votes of Black people were not being shot down, were not being diluted. We're not being circumvented in a way that made them powerless. 2008 was the first time in several generations really when the totality of that Black will became real power. That's a big thing.
Kai: It's a big thing. [music] We'll take a short break and come back with more from The Atlantic senior editor, Vann Newkirk, we're talking about an essay he wrote in this spring's magazine in which he tracked the life of the Voting Rights Act alongside his own family story in Mississippi. I'm Kai Wright, this is the United States of Anxiety, we'll be right back.
Speaker 9: We made some improvement, but there is a systematic, deliberate attempt to take away some of these hard-won gains that there are people who want to take us back to another period. One member of Congress said, we should bring the literacy test back. We cannot go back. We have to go forward. We need to open up the political process and let all of the people come in.
Gigi: Hey everybody, this is Gigi Polizzi. I'm the summer intern at the United States of Anxiety. One of my favorite things about working on this show is how much I've learned about our American democracy like you're doing right now. In our show notes, you can find what we call companion listening, links to past shows or related work that builds on what you're hearing now.
This week you'll find an episode we did back in October of 2020 called A Zombie Political party, where we dive into the GOP as it stands post-Trump and how effective their strategies are for enacting lasting change, even with just minority rule in our government. I hope you take a listen. If you like it, please share it with a friend or someone you think needs to hear this. Thanks for listening.
Fannie Lou Hamer: I had never seen a voter registration form, hat is called the literacy test here, I hadn't ever seen one. On the 31st of August in 1962, it was eighteen of us traveled the twenty-six miles down to the county code house to try to register, to become first-class citizens. We was met there by plain clothes, policemens, and, highway patrol mens, and quite a few people with guns. We stayed on anyway and tried to take this literacy test. It was eighteen of us riding a bus. We were stopped by the highway patrolman and a city police and the bus driver was charged with driving a bus through wrong color that day.
Kai: Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. That was Fannie Lou Hamer was telling a part of the story of the Mississippi Movement that helped create real democracy in the United States. We're thinking about the legacy of the Voting Rights Act this week. I'm talking with Atlantic senior editor, Vann Newkirk, who wrote a really moving essay this spring that traced the history of the law alongside his own family history in Mississippi.
Vann, you write that President Johnson signed a law in August of 1965. That's one month after your mom's first birthday. She grew up alongside this hugely consequential law, watched how fiercely whites in power opposed it. I think this is one of the problems with our sepia-toned versions of history. We get this false assurance of a before and after these big milestones, but it's not like the law passed and suddenly we had democracy. What had to happen to make the law a real thing in a place like Mississippi?
Vann: Right? There was no guarantee that even the Voting Rights Act in 1965, that it would be considered constitutional going down the road. There was a very experimental law that bound states in a way that had never been bound before, to create and reform elections laws, which previously have been considered totally, the domain of state politics. Right off the bat, we've never had a more controversial intervention in state law since the Union Army was making Southern states let Black people vote. We've never had anything like that.
Vann: Right. Instead of at gunpoint, essentially what we had to rely on was the active will of Federal enforcers in the justice department, which was not necessarily guaranteed. We had to rely on a lower level of movement from advocates, movement from local lawyers, of people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement themselves, that they had to be visual and they had to go out and register people and they had to go out and name and be able to sue for violations.
Then you had to be able to have courts that were willing to interpret the VRA, say it was constitutional, and also go further in saying, "This is how the VRA will be implemented." Those are three things that none of them was guaranteed to work in the way they did.
Kai: Which is to say the whole point of the law was to empower activists like Fannie Lou Hamer, to give them leverage in making those three things possible. You interviewed people from the original Mississippi movement and in that article, one of the things I like is you bring Medgar Evers back to life. He's one of these names we hear, but we don't think about as a human, and he was the field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi. As one person that told you he was the most famous Black man in the state. Can remind people who he was and what happened to him.
Vann: Yes. Medgar Evers, was the public face for a lot of years, the struggle in Mississippi. What that meant was also he was the person who assumed a great deal of personal and familial risk in Mississippi at the time. People were still being lynched. People were still being assassinated. People, they were not being able to get loans for their houses, just for going in NAACP meetings.
He led the NAACP in the state and the region through this most tumultuous period after, Emmett Till's lynching. He led them toward things, like the desegregation of public beaches, more integrated education, of course, we had just had the Brown V. Board decision and, Mississippi was not necessarily moving at all deliberate speed to integrate schools. That was a big thing on his docket.
One thing that was always on the horizon for him, that he was really interested in doing was he believed that you could not have any of these things. You could not have them protected over time without giving Black people the right to vote and not just middle-class Black folks, he wanted to give sharecroppers the right to vote. That essentially is what ended up getting him assassinated.
Kai: Yes. Which is to say that democracy came at quite a cost. Your mom knew this in her bones it's part of what fueled that civic activism that you described earlier. In 2016, after the court had first taken its swipe at the Voting Rights Act and Donald Trump was elected president, your mom was diagnosed with cancer and you write about this difficult moment, really beautifully, Vann, and you tie it to all this history that she lived through.
You write that you say more and more Americans and institutions aligned to themselves against your ballot, but you still voted. You intended not only to live, but to live on your own terms as a citizen. Tell us about your mom in this moment.
Vann: I still remember where I was when she told me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was walking to go buy a Reese's bar at a CVS. You think about the things that imprint your memory, and also remember, that I was in a break. The reason why I was even at the CVS is because I was in a break from traveling to cover the 2016 Election. She knew it was on the horizon. She talked about-- she was one of the first people I heard say that Donald Trump could win.
It was based on her own understanding of history, which is, this is not something that was impossible. It was very important for her in subsequent months after her diagnosis, that she continued to do the things that she saw as civic hygiene, that she saw as her duty to our community, regardless of the physical toll that her treatment took on her. She was even more of an active volunteer in church. She was a lifelong educator.
She had finally managed to meet her dream of becoming a principal at a spring-up elementary school and had to retire early because she could not manage the treatment and be a full-time principal, but she did not stop working as an educator. She volunteered at a local elementary school, that I care about deeply that didn't have money to take field trips. They didn't have money to pay for school uniforms. She gave her time and effort to help those kids do what they needed to do to succeed. She voted.
Kai: As recently as last fall, she scheduled her chemotherapy treatments so that she'd be able to vote in person, even.
Vann: Right. She was so keen on making sure that she would be able to-- she didn't want to do it, and she wasn't shading voting by mail or voting early, but for her, the ritual of going out, going to the polls, of seeing the people's faces, and casting her ballot was so important to her. She made sure everything in life was scheduled around that ritual. Yes, in 2018 when she was going through some pretty aggressive treatment, I remember she put everything to the side. She had to get all the treatments done in October because she was going to be walking to the polls. She didn't want to use a cane, she had broken a couple of bones in her spine and she didn't want to use a cane, she wanted to walk without a cane to the polls and vote and she did.
Kai: Then on election night as you watched the returns come in yourself, you get a call from her, but it was not about the election, what happened?
Vann: It was actually a call from my father. It was from her phone and I was ready to talk to her about the election. We had been chatting the previous couple of days about what we thought was going to happen, so I just assumed it was her giving me the update on her having voted and being ready. It's my dad telling me that she had been moved to the hospice. I guess things moved quickly at that stage. It'd just been the week previous when I was talking to her and she was totally lucid and planning on voting and that was really the last conversation I'd had with her.
She was in hospice that night. I took the first flight I could out of DC to go to where she was in Nashville, Tennessee, and basically as America watched the returns roll in and where I watched him, I watched him holding her hand in the room in hospice in Nashville. Then stayed up with her that night, told her what I could, not sure what she actually absorbed and could hear and understand, and she passed away early the next morning.
Kai: It's just so hard to wrap my head around, Vann, how you process that moment. I'm sure it was a lot, obviously. As somebody who does this work has been covering this story as it unfolded and was deep in the election, what was that like for you? How did you bring all that because, I mean, now you've written an essay where you brought them all together. Why was that-- why did this all come together for you as one story?
Vann: The thing I fixated on for a long time, and it's part of the piece, was this idea you focus on weird things when you grieve, I guess. I was so focused on being upset that she wasn't able to see what happened, that she wasn't able to cast a ballot like she wanted to, that if she had just made it a couple more hours, she would have been able to see how the election turned out.
I don't know why it stuck with me so much, but I just thought about it every day for a long time. I'd already been writing about what this election meant, what it meant for voting rights, what a say a second Trump term would mean for voting rights. He had just recently appointed and confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, what her confirmation would mean for voting rights.
I'd already had a bunch of notes and interviews done on that moment and the piece that in my mind, as I sat and thought and processed and grieved, and as I went to the funeral and was able to-- I haven't been able to see so many of my family because of the pandemic for so long, as I was able to see them and see the faces of people who I then knew, they were those first-generation of folks to try democracy, then I guess things started falling into place. I'm not sure it was the necessary tribute to her, but it was what I could do.
Kai: Amongst the people you talked to as you were doing that reporting is someone named Charles Hamilton, he's now in his 90s, but he was a crucial thinker in all of this history. He was amongst the people who coined the idea of Black power as an electoral Black power. Give us a quick thumbnail sketch of him and why you were talking to him.
Vann: Charles Hamilton, I spent most of that summer before that November talking to him by Zoom. He is in assisted living in New York. The reason why I was so keen on talking to him is he was, again, the coauthor with Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Ture on Black Power. It was a very important book. It put forward the idea that access to the vote was more important than just access to the vote.
It was a key milestone in having Black folks see themselves as free. He was present during Freedom Summer, during all the big moments in Mississippi history that I was so keen on thinking about. It was just natural that I talk to him and he told me so much, just about his idea and it crept in my head that we needed to do more to change the actual terms of how the country is governed to protect democracy for posterity, he said.
Kai: Which meant we need a constitutional amendment. To his mind, this can only happen through it, which is a massive and almost an inconceivable undertaking at this point, but he felt and feels like a constitutional amendment is the only way to ensure this posterity.
Vann: Yes, he said in no uncertain terms that he thought changing the constitution by way of amendment is the only way. It's the only thing we haven't really tried. It's the only way to protect voting rights, to protect this what might be called democratic order, and make it a real robust one. We haven't done that. It's been a couple of generations since we have gone the entire process for creating, proposing, introducing, and ratifying a constitutional amendment.
Kai: We just got a couple of minutes left. That obviously sounds, as I said, just really insurmountable right now, politically. Having now seen what's happened at the court level, knowing that politically about a constitutional amendment, but having heard Charles Hamilton's diagnosis, what do you think? Where are we now in terms of the road forward? It feels to me quite dire and bleak.
Vann: I think now this is the only way. I'm even more convinced that an amendment to the constitution is the only thing that can actually create the type of durable democracy that people of color, the Black folks, need in this country and one that would guarantee the right to vote, that would not make it conditional for people of a certain age and up, it would make it accessible to people who have felonies and who are in prison and would spell out all the different terms. It would create a national elections law that would spell out the terms by which states can and can't restrict and enforce the right to vote.
Yes, I know it seems even more impossible in light of the Supreme Court decision, but I think about if you have it as a target, you can actually use the long conservative war against the VRA as your model for thinking about how to go about it. It's going take a couple of generations, it's going to take a long time, but you need to think in the long-term. You need to think about, how do we make sure that every single landmark in our future is going a little bit further on the path toward this amendment and then you can start to see it, I think.
Kai: Vann Newkirk is a senior editor at The Atlantic. We've been talking about his March 2021 essay American Democracy is Only 55 years old and Hanging By A Thread. We'll put a link to it in the show notes for this episode. Vann, thanks for joining us.
Vann: Thank you, Kai.
Kai: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Jared Paul mixed the podcast version, Kevin Bristow and Louis were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Carl Boisrond, Emily Botein, Karen Frillman, Gigi Polizzi, and Christopher Werth. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Veralyn Williams is our executive producer and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @Kai_Wright. As always, join us for the live version of the show next Sunday 6:00 PM Eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org, or tell your smart speaker, "Play WNYC." Until then, take care of yourself. Thanks for listening.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.