Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- The 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington is being commemorated amid moves by some states to impose restrictions on one of its central goals: the right to vote.
Two months after the Supreme Court declared a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, Southern states that had been covered by the act are taking steps they say will guard against voter fraud - but which critics say will make voting more difficult for minorities.
The court's 5-4 ruling tossed out the formula Congress used to decide which states and municipalities had to clear changes in voting procedures with the federal government. The fallout has reached from the campuses of historically black colleges to the nation's halls of justice.
"This has been a really, really tough summer for race and civil rights, and people are really hurting," says Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "As we approach the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic March on Washington, we are reminded that the fight for equal rights is far from history."
Backers of a North Carolina law that Hillary Rodham Clinton said this month "reads like the greatest hits of voter suppression" argue, however, that the changes are needed to ensure the integrity of the election system.
"We think these are just common-sense reforms," says state Rep. David Lewis, who chairs the House Election Law Committee. "It's never been our intent to restrict people from being able to exercise their right to vote."
The North Carolina law, enacted two weeks ago, eventually will require government-issued photo identification at the polls, reduce early voting by seven days and end both same-day registration and a program that registers students ahead of their 18th birthdays. It has spawned three lawsuits already.
In Texas, one of the nation's toughest photo-ID laws was put into effect following the high court's decision, prompting Attorney General Eric Holder last week to file suit against the state and seek to put Texas back under the Voting Rights Act's pre-clearance requirement.
In Alabama, Mississippi and elsewhere, Republican state officials vowed to implement similar voter identification laws that had been awaiting federal approval. Officials from the National Conference of State Legislatures anticipate more voting restrictions once lawmakers return to state capitals in 2014.
Republican state officials defend the trend, as well as their right to run their states without federal interference.
"Eric Holder is wrong to mess with Texas," state Attorney General Greg Abbott said last week. "All of this is really an effort by the Obama administration to circumvent the recent United States Supreme Court decision."
The state-by-state skirmishes have spawned lawsuits by the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union and others, charging that the new restrictions are racially motivated. Democratic lawmakers from several states have formed an alliance aimed at combating what Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams fears will be a "contagion effect" among states.
To veterans of the 1963 march who want Congress and the courts to step in, it's déjà vu.
"There are people out there trying to turn back the clock because they don't like the results," says Frank Smith, a marcher who now runs the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington. "There is a direct correlation between these marches and demonstrations, and Congress passing remedial actions."
The flurry of activity could have political as well as legal repercussions. Because restraints on voting tend to affect minorities, the poor and students more than others, they could aid Republicans and harm Democrats in the 2014 elections - and the next battle for the White House in 2016.
Clinton, one of the potential candidates in that election, denounced the trend away from expanded voting rights in a speech to the American Bar Association earlier this month.
"In the weeks since the ruling, we've seen an unseemly rush by previously covered jurisdictions to enact or enforce laws that will make it harder for millions of our fellow Americans to vote," she said. "Anyone who says that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in American elections must not be paying attention."
ACT'S SUCCESS LED TO DOWNFALL
The battle lines have formed because five of nine Supreme Court justices decided June 25 that the Voting Rights Act's toughest remedy against racial discrimination no longer is justified. Their decision suggested that the 1963 March on Washington and the many protests it spawned had accomplished its goals, and it was now time to move on.
The justices noted 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 placed under federal oversight.
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 insisted on the creation of legislative districts with black or ethnic majorities.
"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 declared outdated and unconstitutional the law's geographic coverage formula, which penalized mostly Southern states with a history of racial discrimination. Within hours, officials throughout the South vowed to implement voter-identification laws and other policies that had been blocked by the federal government.
Abbott, a Republican, announced plans to implement a Texas voter ID law previously blocked by the Voting Rights Act. Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said implementation of his state's voter ID law, which had been awaiting Justice Department approval, would begin immediately. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said his state's new voter ID law no longer needed federal approval.
Other states also prepared to move ahead with legislation requiring new forms of ID at the polls, limiting early voting hours or restricting voter-registration drives. But no state acted as quickly and comprehensively as North Carolina.
The Tar Heel State's new law requires government-issued photo ID, lacked by a higher percentage of blacks than whites. It reduces from 17 to 10 the number of days for early voting, which also helped blacks more than whites in 2008 and 2012 - though it instructs local boards of elections to maintain the same number of hours and locations.
It eliminates same-day registration, requiring instead that registrants sign up at least 25 days before an election. And it eliminates a high school civics program that registers students ahead of their 18th birthdays.
"Photo ID has become a part of our everyday life," North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said in a YouTube video after he signed the state's new law, noting it's even needed to purchase Sudafed. "Our right to vote deserves similar protection."
McCrory criticized "the extreme left" for being "more interested in divisive politics than ensuring that no one's vote is disenfranchised by fraudulent ballot."
Lewis says North Carolina is simply catching up with other states that require photo ID. Eleven states have put into effect similar laws and eight others are awaiting implementation; included among them are Southern states such as Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Virginia.
Since the law was passed -- it will be phased in from 2014 to 2016 -- some county officials have sought to stop the widespread practice of allowing college students to vote on campus. The overall effort by Republicans prompted state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Democrat, to resign her seat.
The lawsuits in North Carolina, like those in Texas, may be joined by the Justice Department. "I do anticipate their involvement at some point," says Allison Riggs, staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. "We intend to hold Attorney General Holder to his word."
The broader concern among civil rights groups is that other states will follow North Carolina's lead in 2014. "We're going to see more of this," predicts Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the state. "North Carolina's a harbinger."
'CONDEMNED TO REPEAT PAST'
The 1963 marchers who return to the nation's capital this week to mark the anniversary will have a new cause: pressuring Congress to fortify the weakened Voting Rights Act to eliminate 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."
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.
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."
To the court's majority, Young's election and similar changes in the South are reason to declare a lasting victory for the Voting Rights Act. To civil rights veterans, continued federal vigilance is essential.
"North Carolina is the warning bell for what is to come," says Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group. "State legislatures that have wanted to keep and maintain control through manipulating voting laws are doing exactly that. And now there's no check on it."