Grenada 1979: the New Jewel Revolution
Grenada 1979: the New Jewel Revolution
This article was written shortly after the US invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983. The Reagan administration decided to overthrow the government of this tiny island, population 200,000, as an example to other Caribbean countries and Central America. This was ‘America’s backyard’ and radical regimes developing links with Cuba and the Soviet Union – trying to seek greater independence from US imperialism – would be crushed.
This was a period when US imperialism was determined to turn back the tide of revolt against US backed dictatorships throughout the region. In the same year that the New Jewel Movement (NJM) under Maurice Bishop overthrew the authoritarian regime of Eric Gairy in Grenada, the Sandinista’s seized power in Nicaragua in the 1979 popular revolution (See an analysis here ). El Salvador was also in the midst of a vicious civil war in the early 1980s with the US backing a dictatorship against the FMLN guerrilla movement. In Jamaica Michael Manley’s Peoples National Party, in power since 1972, was talking left, developing links with Cuba and backing Nicaragua and Grenada. In the middle east US imperialism’s key ally, the Shah of Iran, was also overthrown by the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Like George Bush today, the Republican administration under Ronald Reagan, had come to power promising to role back these threats to US interests. Through economic blockades, CIA backed subversion and armed intervention, and in the case of Grenada military invasion by US marines, the Administration pursued this policy unremittingly.
Today Grenada is safely back within the imperialist fold. The Cuban built airport, which the US administration denounced as part of a military plan to dominate the region, is at the heart of the country’s tourism industry. US tourists arrive on their jets or ocean liners to be pampered in 5 star hotels rest assured that “communist influence” has been rooted out of the island.
It is for this reason that many of the leaders of the NJM remain incarcerated in the islands prison almost 25 years after the US invasion. Perhaps the best known is the former deputy Prime Minister, Bernard Coard, former educationalist and author of and influential 1971 pamphlet about racism in British schools “How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-Normal in the British School System”. Convicted of instigating the killing of Maurice Bishop and other NJM members by a court set up and financed by the US after the invasion, the trial of the ‘Grenada 17’ was declared a travesty and miscarriage of justice by Amnesty International in a report in 2003 (for campaign information go to: www.grenada17.cwc.net/)
In a period where Hugo Chavez has donned the mantle of the revolutionaries of a previous generation and is seeking to influence not only Latin America but the Caribbean to follow his model of ‘Socialism in the 21st century’, it is worth looking back at the limitations of the revolutions of the late 1970s and above all learning the lessons.
Stuart King 2007
From WORKERS POWER November 1983
THE GRENADIAN REVOLUTION of 1979 was the first popular revolution in the Caribbean since Fidel Castro ousted Batista in 1959. Followed swiftly by the revolution in Nicaragua, these two revolutions soon became the focus of the Reagan administration's determination to reassert its hegemony over its semi-colonial empire. Indeed both the Grenadian and Nicaraguan revolutions were results of this system of rule.
Gairy in Grenada, like Somoza in Nicaragua, survived through intimidation, corruption, rigged "elections" and above all by direct financial, "intelligence" and military support from his North American masters. Like Somoza however, he had become an oppressive burden to important sections of the local bourgeoisie and something of an embarrassment to the Carter Administration.
By 1979 after 23 years in power, Gairy, who had originally come to power at the head of a powerful strike movement of estate workers and small farmers, was politically isolated from all sections of Grenadian society. Having long made his peace with the Grenadian oligarchy and their British overlords, by the 1970s Gairy's personal greed and increasingly eccentric behaviour had made him a liability to the Grenadian ruling class. Constant interventions in favour of his own corrupt and undemocratic Grenada Manual and Mental Workers Union (GMM-WU) alienated both workers and business owners, many of whom were forced to take Gairyite loyalists onto their payroll.
The powerful landowning interests came into conflict with Gairy in the late 1980s. When the marketing boards for Grenada's most important crops - Nutmeg, Cocoa and Bananas were disbanded and stuffed with Gairy nominees. The division was further exacerbated by Gairy's takeover of 25 estates, a measure aimed both at intimidating the oligarchy and shoring up his neglected small farmer base. Even within the burgeoning tourist industry Gairy used his position to ensure his hotels and restaurants were full, while other sections of the industry were discriminated against.
Having alienated virtually all the important classes within Grenadian society, it is little wonder that when 40 armed members of the New Jewel Movement launched their insurrection on 13th March 1979, the Gairy regime collapsed like a pack of cards. There is no doubt that the overthrow of Gairy had enormous popular support on the island. This came not only from NJM activists and supporters but also from non-party members who joined in the rounding up of Gairy's hated "Mongoose Gang" of criminal thugs en masse, and also from the Grenadian oligarchy. The overthrow was hailed by the Grenadian Chamber of Commerce as "a glorious opportunity for Grenada to build something new and different in the Caribbean." The New Jewel Movement (NJM), which had led the revolution, stood at the head of an all class alliance against Gairy.
The New Jewel Movement
The NJM, formed in 1973 out of the fusion of two organisations, had moved in the 1970s from an espousal;" of "Black Power" ideas to more traditional third world "socialism". Its leaders were largely western educated and drawn from the Grenadian petit bourgeoisie. Maurice Bishop's father, Rupert, was a merchant and Bishop himself had tourist interests in Morne Rouge as well as being a barrister. They were revolutionaries in the sense that without an insurrection they would never have ousted Gairy. Beyond they sought to alleviate their country's chronic dependence on imperialism.
Like other revolutionary nationalist movements the NJM sought to improve the social conditions of Grenada by developing a programme of diversification of industry, improvements in agriculture and restricting foreign capital's export of profits from the country. It was a programme which, for all its radical language, sought to improve Grenada's position within the system of world imperialism. If sought to do so primarily by seeking diversification of imperialist investment and also, if necessary, to lean on the non-capitalist states - Cuba, Russia, Eastern Europe - for support.
One wing of the NJM leadership principally Bishop and Unison Whiteman - saw this programme as being implemented along the lines of Michael Manley's Jamaican Socialism and looked primarily to the parties of the Second International for support. Another faction centered around Bernard and Phyllis Coard inclined more towards the Stalinist model of development - looking in particular towards Cuba. Both wings however were united on the defence of the mixed economy i.e. capitalism, in Grenada, leaving the struggle for socialism for the dim and distant future.
It was this perspective which allowed the NJM to unite in the 1976 General Elections with the two bourgeois opposition parties - the Grenada National Party (GNP) and the United Peoples Party (UPP) in a "People's Alliance". The Alliance, although short-lived, managed to gain 48% of the votes and 6 out of 15 seats in parliament.
This was no mean feat in Gairy's rigged and corrupt electoral system. The bourgeois parties, having already proved treacherous allies in the island wide general Strike against Gairy in 1973/4, rapidly distanced themselves from the NJM once in parliament. By 1979 Gairy felt strong enough to order the liquidation of the entire leadership of the NJM, a move which precipitated the NJM into the armed overthrow of the government in March. In this overthrow the bourgeois parties took no part though they gladly shared the results which the NJM was eager to have them do.
The PRG Government
The "Peoples Revolutionary Government" installed in 1979 perfectly mirrored the politics and strategy the NJM. Despite their treachery to the "People's Alliance", the bourgeoisie was invited to join the popular front which made up the PRG. Bourgeois figures like Norris Bain, ex-GNPer and owner of a merchant house and Lynden Rahmdanny, owner of one of the biggest merchant houses in Grenada and former President of the Chamber of Commerce were given important posts in the government - Bain as minister of Health, Rahmdanny as Deputy Minister of Finance under Bernard Coard. Nine out of the original fourteen members of the PRG were members of the NJM. The PRG quickly reaffirmed its intention to stay in the Commonwealth and confirmed recognition of Gairy's appointee Sir Paul Scoon as the Governor general and Queen's representative on the island; a move which turned out to be of no small advantage to imperialism.
The PRG commitment to the defence of capitalism in Grenada was quickly made clear by both wings of the NJM. Maurice Bishop being interviewed in the official organ of world Stalinism, World Marxist Review declared: "We see this revolution as being in the national democratic stage. We are an anti-imperialist party and government and we believe that the process we are involved in at this time is an anti imperialist, national democratic socialist stage of development."
Taking up this theme, three years after the revolution Bernard Coard, architect of Grenada's economic strategy under the PRG, explained: "We are developing our economy on the mixed economy model. Our economy will comprise the state sector, the private sector and the co-operative sector. The dominant sector will be the state sector, which will lead the development process." (Report on the National Economy, 1982). *
While the Social-Democratic and proto-Stalinist wings of the NJM might have disagreed over the tempo of development of the state sector and its relative weight in the economy, both saw it as existing side by side with private capitalism. Both hoped to use a state capitalist sector to dynamise and develop the whole economy, a strategy not acceptable to important sections of the Grenadian bourgeoisie.
The problems that the PRG set out to solve were not unfamiliar ones to the imperialised world, except that the economy of Grenada, a tiny island almost totally dependent on three basic export crops and tourism, was particularly vulnerable to imperialist pressure. The revolution of March 1979, led as it was by a movement committed to improving the lot of the masses, created mobilisations unprecedented on the island since the general strike of 1950. Twenty thousand, 20% of the population, marched on the streets in celebration of Gairy’s resignation a week after the overthrow of his government. The workers and peasants mobilised in the struggles against Gairy had expectations for immediate improvements which the PRG, at least partially, set about granting.
There were dramatic cuts in unemployment, improvements in health, free education and text books, a massive literacy campaign, improvements in basic facilities - transport, water, electricity etc under the PRG. The most repressive aspects of Gairy's regime were dismantled, with the ending of restrictions on trade union recognition, arbitrary arrest, banning of meetings etc. The enthusiastic response of the masses for participating actively in the revolution was channelled into the Parish councils and "popular organisations" of women, youth, and the militia.
Such is the material and cultural impoverishment imperialism has inflicted on the masses of the Caribbean and Central America that solving or alleviating these problems - by literacy campaigns, health measures, land reform indeed revolutionise the life of the masses. Yet they remain bourgeois democratic tasks even if semi-colonial servitude and a venal local bourgeoisie could never bring these gains. These measures are compatible with the maintenance of capitalism even though the landed oligarchy, the local bourgeoisie and the imperialists regard any regime that carries them out as Marxist.
Inevitable venomous counter revolutionary opposition to elementary economic, cultural and democratic rights for the masses invests any regime that attempts to carry them out with an aura of socialism or communism. However as we have seen in Nicaragua and Grenada these governments remain on the terrain of the defence of bourgeois property relations. Opposed, sabotaged, undermined by imperialism and its local agents on the one side; pressed for an extension of the revolution by the masses on the other, these regimes play a bonapartist role. They exclude the bourgeoisie from direct political power and rely on the masses for this. On the other hand they prevent the masses from taking political power and utilising it to carry out a social revolution.
Thus the NJM did not base itself on genuine democratic organs of struggle and power - Councils or soviets organising the urban and rural workers. Instead they created the typical "organs of popular power" so beloved of Castro and his imitators. In Grenada these were primarily the parish and zonal council which were presented with government plans for discussion and criticism but had no power over the policies or actions of the PRG. Thus popular power is little more than a plebiscite organised to approve the policies of the bonapartist leaders. Political questions - supremely who shall govern, do not fall within their sphere of competence.
The Land Question
The commitment of the PRG to the mixed economy also meant that it blocked any serious demands of the masses which threatened private property. Coard made this clear in a speech to the Chamber of Commerce shortly after the revolution when he declared "with the revolution has come the end to the forcible seizure of private property'" One symptom of this was the failure of the PRG to introduce any land reform programme until the land occupations forced them to do so. Land in Grenada is dominated by the large landowners who often have interests in tourism and the retail trade. The big farms, those over 100 acres, which make up only 0.5% of all landholdings, control nearly 50% of all the cultivable acreage in Grenada. While the peasant farmers scratched a living on tiny plots of land, it was estimated that half the land holdings over 500 acres were left lying idle by their absentee landlords! Yet the PRG contented itself with concentrating on the 25 estates, the most infertile ones at that, taken over by Gairy.
In February 1980 when farm workers, complaining of bad conditions and low wages occupied the River Antoine estate owned by the De Gale family, they were variously denounced by the government as being CIA inspired or being in the pockets of Marijuana smugglers. The PRG quickly declared that it: "could not and would not support the seizure of people's property as the means of resolving the conditions of hardship of the workers." (Government Information Bulletin, May 5th 1980). The estate was returned to the De Gales and a grateful member of this land owning family wrote to the Times in the following terms: "It is relevant to record publically that when, in Feb. 1980, our family estate was peremptorily taken over by a village commune and renamed "The People's Collective Farm", government support was immediately forthcoming for the managers' protection and the estate was returned (eventually) to normal working. “It is by judicious, well regulated behaviour that Mr. Bishop - like Mr. Mugabe - hopes to transform this small nation into a homogenous structure of living communities." (Times 13 Feb. 1981)
While this revolt pushed the PRG into taking some reform measures, they remained minor. The "Utilisation Law" gave power to the Ministry of Agriculture to lease idle lands of estates over 100 acres. But the “idle lands for idle hands" scheme was employing only 160 youths on 146 acres of land by mid-1982.
If landownership remained fundamentally untouched by the PRG so too did the business community. The 1973 commitment in the NJM manifesto for "the complete nationalisation of all foreign owned hotels as well as foreign owned housing settlements" was unceremoniously ignored. Only Gairy's hotels were taken into state ownership. The US owned "Holiday Inn" which accounted for 33% of all available rooms on the island and 50% of all foreign exchange earnings remained untouched as did the private villa developments and land speculation projects.
In August 1979 a 5 week strike over the dismissal of two workers at the Coca Cola bottling plant owned by one of the biggest Grenada companies W.F. Julian and Co. led to the government taking over the plant. The PRG however yielded to the bourgeoisie's screams of "creeping socialism" which greeted this measure and, two years later, returned the plant to its previous owners, together with all the profits made during that period!
While the PRG encouraged the formation of trade unions, particularly those under NJM leadership, strikes which threatened "the economy" were denounced in no uncertain terms. Industrial action by public sector workers in January 1981, taking the form of a "sickout" in pursuance of a wage claim was quickly branded by the government controlled newspaper Free West Indian as "part of a plan by certain unpatriotic and counter revolutionary elements to disrupt the second anniversary celebrations of our glorious March 13 revolution...".
Of course the PRG justified these attacks on the legitimate demands of the masses in terms of defending the "revolution". But the policies of the NJM limited this revolution to a bourgeois democratic one. The PRG was demanding sacrifices and discipline not in order to defend a socialist state where the workers and peasants exercised real power over decision making, and a planned economy geared to needs not profit, but for a still bourgeois state where the toil and sacrifice of the workers and peasants lined the pockets of the oligarchy and the imperialists and a few crumbs fell to the masses.
Worse, the PRG's strategy of maintaining a mixed economy with a private sector subordinate to the "peoples' government" and state sector was a utopian one. It was utopian to believe that an isolated anti-imperialist Grenada could survive imperialist economic and military pressure and intervention, with an internal enemy only waiting for the opportunity to strike. Only the most energetic spreading of the struggle throughout the Caribbean could have kept Reagan's hands full.
The strategy pursued by the PRG played straight into the hands of the counter-revolutionaries. The masses had to be restrained to preserve the alliance with sections of the bourgeois. This alliance was crucial, as were the guarantees of private property, to obtain aid from the imperialist agencies - the IMF, EEC, World Bank, UN etc. The emphasis on building up the tourist industry, the most vulnerable to imperialist sabotage, emphasised the commitment of the PRG to stay within the imperialist orbit "on its own terms". Indeed both Cuba and the USSR, ever fearful of revolutionary situations developing outside their control and perhaps embroiling them, unswervingly encouraged this strategy of preserving the mixed economy.
Imperialism had no intention of allowing such a regime, which sought a degree of independence from it, to survive. Grenada posed the same threat to imperialism's untrammelled rule in the Caribbean that Nicaragua did in Central America. The Grenadian bourgeoisie, intimately linked with and dependant on imperialism as well aware of this.
Thus the struggle for parliamentary elections became crucial both for the Grenadian ruling class and imperialism. For the Grenadian oligarchy it meant the chance of regaining its political control over the state. For the imperialists it would have provided the "democratic" lever to bring down the PRG in the same way they ended Michael Manley's "experiment with socialism". For the PRG it would have spelt doom. It would have exposed the divisions within the NJM, so carefully concealed from the masses. Given that they had left intact a dominant and aggressive private sector, it would have meant at best a powerful bourgeois opposition, supported by imperialism.
Imperialism proceeded to use the carrot and stick on the PRG. European and Canadian imperialism preferred to emphasise the carrot - continued aid. Reagan preferred the stick- military threats. As the imperialist stranglehold tightened in Grenada - the US blocked as much aid as it could and warned US tourists to stay away from Grenada.
The bourgeoisie stepped up its campaign internally. The crisis over the bourgeois paper Torchlight represented the first phase of this struggle. In a running battle with the PRG, this GNP supported paper was finally closed in October 1979. The month before Carter had announced the formation of the "quick strike" Caribbean task force. The Grenadian Voice, Torchlight's successor - backed by 22 leading businessmen and land owners was closed on its second issue. In June 1980 a sophisticated bomb, planted by a former People's Revolutionary Army sergeant, under a platform where Bishop and other leading NJM members were speaking, went off killing 3 women in the audience and injuring 100 others. In August the following year the US launched a NATO exercise - operation "Amber and the Amberdines", which was clearly a dummy run invasion of Grenada.
As aid began to dry up (the PRG was forced to turn. to Cuba and Libya to finance its international airport) the economic situation became worse. Maurice Bishop pointed out in a speech in London that cocoa prices had fallen 65% between 1981 and 83 while Grenada had 10 million pounds of nutmeg in store, where the annual production was only 6 million pounds.
The growing economic impasse and increasing threats of imperialist intervention exacerbated the divisions within the PRG. The New Jewel Movement by its very nature was never a democratic party involving the masses. No congress of the party was ever held after 1978. Political disputes were hammered out behind closed doors within the leadership circles. Given the Bonapartist nature of the regime and the role of Bishop as "Popular leader" political disputes necessarily took on a personal as well as a political character.
Simmering disputes of this character had been going on for a considerable time within the leading cliques. On the one side stood the supporters of Bernard and Phyllis Coard, the organisers since the mid 70s of a body called the "Organisation for Revolutionary Education and Liberation"(OREL) which was clearly sympathetic to the Soviet Union and Cuba. This body played a leading role in the overthrow of Gairy and controlled key posts in the People's Revolutionary Army, the 20,000 strong militia, the NJM and the government. On the other stood Maurice Bishop and his supporters.
The crisis in the NJM erupted following Bishop's return from a visit to Hungary and Czechoslovakia on 10th October. The political basis of the differences is not clear, although it is possible that Bishop was considering making concessions to the US government on the question of elections following his visit to Washington in June. Whether these concessions included the ousting of pro-Cuban elements from the government is not known. What is known is that OREL gained a majority in the Central Committee of the NJM for Bernard Coard to become ideological leader of the party and share the leadership with Bishop. Bishop it appears rejected this and started to mobilise his mass following in his own defence.
On Wednesday 12th, Bishop and Jacqueline Creft, were placed under house arrest by the PRA and units of the security forces loyal to OREL. The government was deadlocked. On Saturday Kenrick Radix, the Attorney General, and close supporter of Bishop in the NJM led a demonstration of 300 in St. George's demanding Bishop's release - Radix was also arrested. On Tuesday 18th October 500 students marched on Pearls airport, disrupting incoming flights. The result was a split in the government with Unison Whiteman, Norris Bain, Lynden Rahmdanny and George Louison resigning. Whiteman denounced Major Leon Cornwall and Hudson Austin- both members of OREL - for lying about the reasons for Bishop's arrest and proceeded to organise a "down tools" for the following day.
The massive demonstration on Wednesday morning 19th October was the result. Three to four thousand Grenadans led by Whiteman marched to Bishop's house to release him and Cleft. Then led by Bishop they proceeded to march on Fort Rupert the military headquarters and arsenal. Here they were fired on by units of the PRA, possibly drawn from OR EL supporters. Later it appears that Whiteman, Bishop, Creft, Norris Bain and Fitzroy Bain, General Secretary of the Agricultural Workers' Union were executed by these same units.
What political differences of such a deep nature could have led to such a tragic outcome? Any move by Bishop towards a compromise with imperialism, even involving elections was clearly unacceptable to the likes of Coard and Hudson who favoured strengthening the state sector and closer relations with the "communist" bloc as the way out of the crisis. What is certain is that neither faction of the NJM represented the historic or immediate interests of the Grenadian masses. The Cuban style proto-Stalinism of Coard and Hudson involved a deep fear of the masses. Whilst they may have opposed Bishop's proposed political concessions to Reagan, they could offer no real workers' democracy in counter position to bourgeois-democracy.
Unlike Castro they had no mass popularity they could demagogically exploit. Bishop on the other hand did. A real barrier to Bishop's concessions to imperialism would have been the creation of real organs of workers and' peasants power - councils with the decisive say on all policy matters and a mass armed militia which elected its officers and commanders. The discovery of large storehouses of weapons by the invading US marines indicates that neither faction trusted the masses with the weapons. Instead the "left" elements tried to settle matters behind the backs of the masses. They preferred to unleash the standing army on the masses. The killings of October 18th were indefensible. Not only did they provide a pretext for US intervention, but, a hundred times more importantly, they sowed deep confusion and demoralisation amongst the masses, disarming them in the face of that intervention. The bloody dead end of both Social -Democratic and the Stalinist poles of petit-bourgeois nationalism have both been tragically demonstrated in Grenada.
Only the programme of revolutionary communism - Trotskyism - of workers power and permanent revolution holds an alternative for the masses of the semi-colonial countries. The role of social-democrats and Stalinists alike in blocking the revolution, of seeking alliances with the bourgeoisie to preserve a "democratic stage" has been shown once again for what it is - a bankrupt strategy which delivers the masses into the hands of imperialism. Starting from the resolute defence and the extension of the gains of the 1979 revolution, the strategy of permanent revolution, would have necessitated breaking through the radical bourgeois programme of the NJM and the PRG. The genuine democracy of workers' power is inseparably bound up with meeting the desperate needs of the workers, small farmers and the urban poor at the expense of the sacred rights of private property. Only thus can the masses be consciously and irrevocably won to the side of revolution.
The extension of that power throughout the Caribbean and Circum-Caribbean area is the only guarantee of the defence of such a revolution against imperialism's onslaught. Grenadian and Caribbean revolutionaries must inscribe on their. banners "For a socialist federation of the Caribbean."
In Grenada, no "Workers and Peasants Government" that was answerable to workers' councils and an armed mass militia, existed. Nor did a genuine revolutionary party exist which would have fought for its creation. Both a revolutionary party and a revolutionary workers' and peasants' government were, are and will be vital goals of struggle, both in Grenada and in Nicaragua, if the same bloody pattern is not to be repeated there as Reagan and Thatcher rage like rabid do as through the semi-colonial countries.
* Both quotes taken from Fitzroy Ambursley, Grenada; the New Jewel Revolution, in Crisis in the Caribbean, Heinemann, London 1983. This article draws heavily from the information provided by that essay as well as from Grenada: The Peaceful Revolution, Epica Task Force.
by Stuart King
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One of the martyrs of the civil-rights movement, Vernon Dahmer, lies in a cemetery in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. A voting-rights activist and president of the local NAACP chapter, Dahmer was killed when his home was firebombed by Klansmen five months after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. Dahmer’s tombstone bears his famous words: “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”Ad Policy
Like every step along the path to racial justice, including the recent removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state Capitol, the VRA was bought and paid for with blood. Those who fought for it, like Dahmer, understood that it meant a new beginning for democracy, not an end of the need for vigilance.
That need gained fresh urgency in 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder. When the act was passed, its original intent was to eliminate discriminatory practices like literacy tests and poll taxes that had been erected to deny the franchise to black voters. Section 5 required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to clear any changes in voting practices and procedures with either the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, DC. Under the VRA, America began the arduous task of remaking the mechanisms of political participation by rooting out practices with the purpose or effect of disempowering members of minority groups on the basis of race.
Unlike other parts of the VRA—most notably Section 2, which prohibits states and political subdivisions from engaging in discrimination in electoral politics and provides an after-the-fact legal remedy—Section 5 provided prophylactic measures against discriminatory practices and procedures. It was not intended to be permanent; it operated pursuant to a coverage formula found in Section 4(b) and required periodic review to determine whether it remained necessary. It was reenacted in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006.
During the congressional debates over the 2006 reenactment, civil-rights groups were aware that the passage of time raised questions about the continuing relevance of the coverage formula, which imposed “preclearance” obligations on much of the South. While 2006 was not 1965, advocates argued, race remained a powerful factor in electoral politics, and the South remained the epicenter of discriminatory efforts to dilute the voting strength and political empowerment of people of color.
Supporters gathered thousands of pages of evidence documenting a continuing history of discrimination in jurisdictions across the nation, particularly in the South. Advocates knew that the legislation would be attacked in federal court, and that one of those attacks would lead to the Supreme Court. They also knew that John Roberts, the newly minted chief justice, had expressed strong hostility toward the VRA as a young lawyer in the Reagan administration. Roberts’s unaltered views were a substantial part of the reason that civil-rights organizations opposed his nomination to the Court. Their concerns were validated with shocking clarity when Roberts wrote the majority opinion in Shelby County.
Shelby County was not the first post-2006 reenactment challenge to reach the Supreme Court. In 2009, the Court had considered Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District 1 v. Holder, which included an attack on the constitutionality of Section 5. The Court avoided the constitutional question in that ruling, but Roberts, signaling his opposition to Section 5, teed up the 2006 amendment for Shelby County. Noting that “things have changed in the South,” he wrote: “Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.”
In the process of reenacting Section 5, Congress considered federalism concerns and adopted an extensive record of continuing discrimination in the covered jurisdictions. It further included “bailout” provisions, which allowed a jurisdiction to demonstrate in court that it no longer operated in a manner that justified Section 5 coverage. None of this saved the provision. To be clear, the Supreme Court did not strike down Section 5 in Shelby County; instead, it invalidated Section 4(b)’s coverage formula. But invalidating the coverage formula while sparing Section 5 was tantamount to disabling a computer’s operating system but leaving the hardware intact.
Writing for a 5–4 majority, Roberts largely ignored the extensive record amassed by Congress. As he had done in Northwest Austin, he insisted that things had changed since 1965, citing the number of black elected officials and the parity in voter participation in many jurisdictions. He also charged that Congress had failed to show proper deference to states’ rights under the 10th Amendment.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that from 1982 to 2004, there were more Section 5 objections (626) than in the period from 1965 to 1982 (490), and that Section 5 accounted for a great deal of the progress Roberts cited to support his conclusion that so much had changed. Invalidating the coverage formula, she quipped, was like discarding an umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet.
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In the aftermath of Shelby County, many of the jurisdictions that had been subjected to Section 5 moved to adopt changes in their political systems that made participation in democratic processes more difficult for voters of color. Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia enacted voter-ID laws, and other jurisdictions moved to do things they would not have done prior to Shelby. All of these actions would have been stopped by preclearance, and some, including the Texas photo-ID law and that state’s redistricting efforts, had already been blocked but were resuscitated by the Court’s decision. The cumulative effect could be dramatic, perhaps even decisive, in next year’s elections.
The Voting Rights Act has long been called the “crown jewel” of the civil-rights movement. Section 5 was its heart, but the coverage formula in Section 4(b) was what made that heart beat. By driving a stake through it, Roberts helped fulfill a long-term conservative project aimed at dismantling the corpus of antidiscrimination law adopted during the civil-rights era. He also dealt a heavy blow to democracy.