What he might more accurately have written was that Washington-Williams’s mother was a family maid, and that Thurmond, then in his early twenties, had impregnated her when she was only 15. For all the racial hypocrisy this episode entails, let’s not forget that today such a scenario might also be grounds for a charge of rape, an avenue of justice not open to Essie Mae’s mother in the South Carolina of the twenties. It’s an indicator of how much the Republican Party and the conservative movement want this shameful history to go away that when Washington-Williams, the human embodiment of Thurmond and segregation’s legacy, died at 87, in February, her death went unmentioned in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and most other conservative outlets, and unacknowledged by any conservative columnist at the Times, the Journal, or the Washington Post.
As an accident of timing would have it, Washington-Williams died a few weeks before the Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, the Alabama challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Thurmond and his fellow segregationists—Republican, Democrat, Democrat-soon-to-turn-Republican—tried so hard to defeat and then to thwart. It’s no coincidence that the case has come before the court simultaneously with the proliferation of those new local laws abridging voting rights. This is a calculated two-pronged effort to fix the GOP’s minority deficit by extra-democratic means.
The boosters of the new voting regulations would have us believe instead that their efforts are in response to a (nonexistent) rise in the country’s minuscule instances of voter fraud. Everyone knows these laws are in response to the rise of Barack Obama. It is also no coincidence that many of them were conceived and promoted by the American Legal Exchange Council, an activist outfit funded by heavy-hitting right-wing donors like Charles and David Koch. In another coincidence that the GOP would like to flush down the memory hole, the Kochs’ father, Fred, a founder of the radical John Birch Society in the fifties, was an advocate for the impeachment of Chief Justice Warren in the aftermath of Brown. Fred Koch wrote a screed of his own accusing communists of inspiring the civil-rights movement.
The current chief justice, John Roberts, has made his perspective on the landmark civil-rights laws of that era clear. His now notorious pseudo-aphorism—“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”—is nothing if not an echo of Goldwater’s (ghostwritten) laissez-faire philosophy of racial justice as delineated in his 1960 manifesto The Conscience of a Conservative. Goldwater said that while he supported school desegregation in principle, he believed it wrong “to impose that judgment” on “the people of Mississippi or South Carolina” or to instruct them on how to achieve that goal. “I believe that the problem of race relations, like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people directly concerned,” he concluded. Or, in other words: The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. No law enforcement is required.
Should the Goldwater-Roberts view prevail next month, it will be a setback for American voting rights. But I also wonder if so reactionary a decision could backfire on a GOP that has tried and is still trying so hard to disguise its role in the history that necessitated the Voting Rights Act in the first place—as well as the act’s repeated extension by Congress, most recently with near-unanimous bipartisan support in 2006. It’s that history, not happenstance or habit or “free stuff,” that drove African-Americans to give the Republican ticket the exact same 6 percent of its votes in both 1964 and 2012.
A gutted Voting Rights Act might spark an uproar so raucous that a whole new generation of voters could be compelled to learn just how we got there. The more Americans who are armed with the truth, the better it is for the country, of course, but also for a party that is unlikely to move forward in a fast-changing 21st-century America until it is forced to free itself from its past.