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Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy
     

Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy

by Gary May
 

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When the Fifteenth Amendment of 1870 granted African Americans the right to vote, it seemed as if a new era of political equality was at hand. Before long, however, white segregationists across the South counterattacked, driving their black countrymen from the polls through a combination of sheer terror and insidious devices such as complex literacy tests and

Overview

When the Fifteenth Amendment of 1870 granted African Americans the right to vote, it seemed as if a new era of political equality was at hand. Before long, however, white segregationists across the South counterattacked, driving their black countrymen from the polls through a combination of sheer terror and insidious devices such as complex literacy tests and expensive poll taxes. Most African Americans would remain voiceless for nearly a century more, citizens in name only until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act secured their access to the ballot.

In Bending Toward Justice, celebrated historian Gary May describes how black voters overcame centuries of bigotry to secure and preserve one of their most important rights as American citizens. The struggle that culminated in the passage of the Voting Rights Act was long and torturous, and only succeeded because of the courageous work of local freedom fighters and national civil rights leaders—as well as, ironically, the opposition of Southern segregationists and law enforcement officials, who won public sympathy for the voting rights movement by brutally attacking peaceful demonstrators. But while the Voting Rights Act represented an unqualified victory over such forces of hate, May explains that its achievements remain in jeopardy. Many argue that the 2008 election of President Barack Obama rendered the act obsolete, yet recent years have seen renewed efforts to curb voting rights and deny minorities the act’s hard-won protections. Legal challenges to key sections of the act may soon lead the Supreme Court to declare those protections unconstitutional.

A vivid, fast-paced history of this landmark piece of civil rights legislation, Bending Toward Justice offers a dramatic, timely account of the struggle that finally won African Americans the ballot—although, as May shows, the fight for voting rights is by no means over.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Kevin Boyle
Have we—at long last—overcome? Not yet, University of Delaware historian Gary May makes clear in his exemplary account of the landmark law…May moves nimbly through the swirl of events that led to the Voting Rights Act.
Publishers Weekly
May’s lively and cogent history of the Voting Rights Act is indispensable reading for anyone concerned about the erosion of voting rights that has accompanied the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, especially as the issue is still up for debate in 2013, in a case to be heard by the Supreme Court. Drawing on a wealth of sources, University of Delaware historian May (Informant: the FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo) has constructed a vivid, fast-paced morality tale with clearly recognizable heroes, like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Bernard Lafayette, whose commitment to Christian nonviolence transformed a dispirited Alabama town, and villains, like Sherriff Jim Clark, whose propensity for violence inadvertently strengthened Martin Luther King Jr.’s cause. On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, state troopers and local vigilantes in Selma, Ala., brutally attacked a small group of African-American nonviolent protesters. That event shocked the conscience of the nation and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, perhaps the most lasting achievement of the Civil Rights movement. By focusing on Selma, May pays tribute to the courage of otherwise ordinary people and makes a case for the continued relevance of this legislation. Photos. Agent: John Wright. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

The Washington Post
"[An] exemplary account of the landmark law.... May moves nimbly through the swirl of events that led to the Voting Rights Act."

New York Review of Books
“May's eminently readable book is particularly timely because the Supreme Court, on June 25, 2013, issued its decision in Shelby County v. Holder.... May's book contains a wealth of information about the events that led to the enactment of the 1965 statute—and about the dedication and heroism of little-known participants in the events that came to national attention in 1964 and 1965.”

Bookforum
“We have all probably talked about the Voting Rights Act in hushed whispers for too long. May's efforts go a long way toward ending that silence.”

The New Yorker
"A book of the classical phase, a lively and unabashedly partisan account of Selma and the Voting Rights Act.... May tells the story his own way, and he is able to add many details.”

The Nation
“A great introduction to voting rights at a moment when the subject is drawing more attention than any time since 1965.”

Zocalo Public Square
“May's compelling narrative history brings individual experiences to life without losing sight of the bigger arc of a nation.”

Rick Valelly, Swarthmore College, author of The Two Reconstructions
“In this vivid and beautifully written page-turner, May brings the story of the Voting Right Act to life in an altogether new way by deftly drawing out the personal stories and voices of this epoch-making statute. At a time when the future of the Voting Rights Act is uncertain and up for debate, May's book could not be more timely—or more readable.”

Nick Kotz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America
“Gary May's dramatic Bending Toward Justice brings alive the critical dynamic between grass roots advocacy and political leadership which produced the most significant advance in civil rights since the Emancipation Proclamation. How this victory was achieved provides vital lessons to any citizen concerned about the importance of voting rights protections and the dangers and challenges to those rights today.”

Kirkus Reviews
“A meticulous, impassioned narrative.... May delivers a fascinating account of the legislative maneuvering required to corral enough Republican votes to shut down the inevitable filibuster by southern Democrats and bring about final passage…. Superb history.”

Booklist
“An illuminating history of a law that remains all too relevant.”

Library Journal
“Compelling.... This lucid investigation of the act's history relates its critical importance to American democracy.”

Robert Dallek, author of John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, 1917-1963
“Gary May's compelling history of why and how the Voting Rights Act advanced the promise of American life could not be more timely. Every member of the Supreme Court and every citizen interested in the widest possible access to the ballot box will want to read May's book. It should be recognized as the standard work on this most important subject.”

Montgomery Advertiser
Bending Toward Justice is remarkable and deserves to be read by those interested in the civil rights movement.”

American Studies Journal
“In this extremely compelling narrative, historian Gary May does a masterful job of connecting the actions of blacks in the south who wished to exercise their political rights and broader local, regional, and national developments.”

The News Journal
“The story of the act is dramatically told by Gary May.... You cannot read this book without becoming convinced that the act was the most important law of the 20th century.”

Journal of American History
“Even the most knowledgeable will find interesting new nuggets here.”

Publishers Weekly
“May's lively and cogent history of the Voting Rights Act is indispensable reading for anyone concerned about the erosion of voting rights that has accompanied the election of Barack Obama, America's first black president, especially as the issue is still up for debate in 2013, in a case to be heard by the Supreme Court.... May has constructed a vivid, fast-paced morality tale.... By focusing on Selma, May pays tribute to the courage of otherwise ordinary people and makes a case for the continued relevance of this legislation.”

The New Yorker - Louis Menand
"Bending Toward Justice is a book of the classical phase [of the Civil Rights Movement], a lively and unabashedly partisan account of Selma and the Voting Rights Act. . . . May tells the story in his own way, and he is able to add many details."
 
Washington Post - Kevin Boyle
"Have we—at long last—overcome? Not yet, University of Delaware historian Gary May makes clear in his exemplary account of the landmark law."
Philadelphia Inquirer - Paul Jablow
"May accomplishes what he set out to do, rendering 'a dramatic account of the struggle that finally won African Americans the ballot.' It's a story that is chilling in many ways and inspiring in others. . . . May explores the testy relationship between the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson with nuance and detail. . . . And May's account of Johnson facing down Alabama Gov. George Wallace over Wallace's refusal to force county registrars to register black voters is one of the best descriptions anywhere of the fabled 'LBJ Treatment.'"
 
The Nation - Ari Berman
"May’s book is a great introduction to voting rights at a moment when the subject is drawing more attention than any time since 1965."
 
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 - Robert Dallek
"Gary May’s compelling history of why and how the Voting Rights Act advanced the promise of American life could not be more timely. Every member of the Supreme Court and every citizen interested in the widest possible access to the ballot box will want to read May’s book. It should be recognized as the standard work on this most important subject."
 
The Two Reconstructions: the Struggle for Black Enfranchisement - Richard M. Valelly
“In this vivid and beautifully written page-turner, May brings the story of the Voting Right Act to life in an altogether new way by deftly drawing out the personal stories and voices of this epoch-making statute. At a time when the future of the Voting Rights Act is uncertain and up for debate, May’s book could not be more timely—or more readable.”
 
Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America - Nick Kotz
"Gary May’s dramatic Bending Toward Justice brings alive the critical dynamic between grass roots advocacy and political leadership which produced the most significant advance in civil rights since the Emancipation Proclamation. How this victory was achieved provides vital lessons to any citizen concerned about the importance of voting rights protections and the dangers and challenges to those rights today."
 
Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution - Diane McWhorter
"It’s hard to believe that a pivot in American history as transformative as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is only now getting its first book-length treatment, but Gary May is the ideal historian for the job. With confidence and concision, he navigates between a landmark bridge in Selma, Alabama, and the also highly contended committees of Congress to produce a compelling narrative of the civil rights movement’s ultimate triumph: the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the ensuing federal legislation guaranteeing universal suffrage. By following the struggle over voting rights into the present day, May’s fine book provides vivid proof that history is never history."
 
California Lawyer - Margaret M. Russell
"Gary May's compelling book about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is both timely and deeply historical. . . . The second half of the book examines in fascinating detail the passage of the law itself and its aftermath. May is careful to include and address critiques of the act from political and legal perspectives."
 
Booklist
"An illuminating history of a law that remains all too relevant."
African American Review - Chandler Davidson
"Anyone interested in understanding the extent of the damage, actual and symbolic, to the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities caused by this monumental decision [Shelby County v. Holder] would do well to read May's book. . . . Once the reader has finished the book, she will have a good grasp of the long, hard, often dangerous battle Blacks and their allies have fought since the end of Reconstruction to achieve equal voting rights, the terrible sacrifices champions of voting rights—particularly southern Blacks—have made in behalf of this goal, and the importance the VRA has had in partially achieving the goal."
 
Moyers and Company - Bill Moyers
"By coincidence, the very weekend before the Supreme Court’s decision disemboweled [the Voting Rights Act], I had finished reading this masterful new account of the events leading up to its passage. . . . You will not find in one volume a more compelling story of the heroic men and women who struggled for the right to vote, or a more cinematic rendering of the political battle to enact the law, or a more succinct telling of the long campaign to subvert it. . . . [Gary May] has written a book that could change this country again, if every citizen read it.”
The New York Review of Books - Justice John Paul Stevens
"May’s eminently readable book is particularly timely . . . [and] contains a wealth of information about the events that led to the enactment of the 1965 statute—and about the dedication and heroism of little-known participants in the events that came to national attention in 1964 and 1965."
Slate - Dahlia Lithwick
"Gary May's superb new book . . . offer[s] a grim reminder of how truly awful things were for Southern Blacks before the [Voting Rights Act] was enacted, and how hard Southern whites worked to suppress their votes, long after they were legally granted the franchise. He details the beatings, deaths, police-led violence, and brutality that culminated in the events of 'Bloody Sunday' in March of 1965."
Library Journal
The Voting Rights Act (VRA), signed by President Johnson on August 6, 1965, was the legacy of the Fifteenth Amendment's (1870) unfulfilled promise of minority suffrage and a response to Jim Crow suppression. So claims May (history, Univ. Delaware; The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo) in a compelling, Howard Zinn-like style, stressing the actions of lesser-known civil rights activists who were willing to die for the right to vote. He clearly explains the complex legislative battles preceding passage of the act, which required LBJ's most persuasive leadership, Martin Luther King Jr.'s awe-inspiring speeches, and Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen's marshaling of his Republican troops to cross the aisle. May demonstrates that the VRA's reauthorizations in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1986, and 2006 required strong congressional guidance, but he asserts that its greatest challenge comes from the current voter ID bills in several states that could disenfranchise minorities, the poor, elderly, and students. VERDICT This lucid investigation of the act's history relates its critical importance to American democracy. For general readers it is a fine companion to James Patterson's The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, which places the act in the context of the year's political events.—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Township Lib., King of Prussia, PA
Kirkus Reviews
May (History/Univ. of Delaware; The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo, 2011, etc.) explores the agitation for, and the passage and continuing significance of, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In a meticulous, impassioned narrative, the author describes how determined activists in Selma, Ala., succeeded in mobilizing their community and many others in the Deep South to demand an end to the devious, cynical and violent practices that had excluded blacks from the voter rolls since the end of Reconstruction. Their campaign culminated in the horrific violence at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, an atrocity that galvanized the nation and forced a reluctant Lyndon Johnson to make passage of a muscular voting rights act an urgent priority. May delivers a fascinating account of the legislative maneuvering required to corral enough Republican votes to shut down the inevitable filibuster by southern Democrats and bring about final passage. After this point, however, the author's exposition loses its way. He needlessly follows Martin Luther King for the remainder of his life, then delves into a tedious summary of the various renewals and amendments to the act as it evolved from controversial enactment to legislative sacred cow. So successful has it been in enabling the registration and participation of hundreds of thousands of minority voters that controversies surrounding its application and even relevance in an era with a black president of the United States have become increasingly subtle and complex. May reviews a number of difficult issues at the core of the act's present significance, including the drawing of appropriate electoral district boundaries, the intent and effect of voter-identification laws, and the continuing legitimacy of pre-clearance provisions applicable only in certain jurisdictions guilty of discrimination half a century ago, but they deserve more thoughtful treatment than the uncritical acceptance of current liberal dogma that May offers. Superb history combined with superficial punditry.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465050734
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
04/09/2013
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
336
File size:
2 MB

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Publishers Weekly
“May’s lively and cogent history of the Voting Rights Act is indispensable reading for anyone concerned about the erosion of voting rights that has accompanied the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, especially as the issue is still up for debate in 2013, in a case to be heard by the Supreme Court…. May has constructed a vivid, fast-paced morality tale…. By focusing on Selma, May pays tribute to the courage of otherwise ordinary people and makes a case for the continued relevance of this legislation.”

Kirkus Reviews
“A meticulous, impassioned narrative…. May delivers a fascinating account of the legislative maneuvering required to corral enough Republican votes to shut down the inevitable filibuster by southern Democrats and bring about final passage…. Superb history.”

Robert Dallek, author of John F. Kennedy: An Unfinished Life, 1917-1963
“Gary May’s compelling history of why and how the Voting Rights Act advanced the promise of American life could not be more timely. Every member of the Supreme Court and every citizen interested in the widest possible access to the ballot box will want to read May's book. It should be recognized as the standard work on this most important subject.”

Rick Valelly, Swarthmore College, author of The Two Reconstructions
“In this vivid and beautifully written page-turner, May brings the story of the Voting Right Act to life in an altogether new way by deftly drawing out the personal stories and voices of this epoch-making statute. At a time when the future of the Voting Rights Act is uncertain and up for debate, May’s book could not be more timely—or more readable.”

Nick Kotz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America
“Gary May’s dramatic Bending Toward Justice brings alive the critical dynamic between grass roots advocacy and political leadership which produced the most significant advance in civil rights since the Emancipation Proclamation. How this victory was achieved provides vital lessons to any citizen concerned about the importance of voting rights protections and the dangers and challenges to those rights today.”

Diane McWhorter, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Carry Me Home
“It’s hard to believe that a pivot in American history as transformative as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is only now getting its first book-length treatment, but Gary May is the ideal historian for the job. With confidence and concision, he navigates between a landmark bridge in Selma, Alabama, and the also highly contended committees of Congress to produce a compelling narrative of the civil rights movement’s ultimate triumph: the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the ensuing federal legislation guaranteeing universal suffrage. By following the struggle over voting rights into the present day, May’s fine book provides vivid proof that history is never history.”

Meet the Author

Gary May is Professor of History at the University of Delaware. He is the author of The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo.

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