About a dozen years ago, Gary May began conducting research for a book he authored on the 1965 murder of civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo in Alabama. From that point on, he says, there was no question of where his future research would take him.
"Once you 'go South' and write about civil rights, there's no going back," said May, a professor of history at the University of Delaware whose new book explores the 1965 Voting Rights Act. "There is no more interesting, no more dramatic, no more important story in American history than the story of the civil rights movement."
Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, published this month by Basic Books, recounts the history of the law that enabled African Americans to overcome the obstacles and policies of intimidation that had effectively stripped them of their right to vote in many parts of the South.
Although the act authorized the federal government to intervene and protect voting rights, May said it came about not so much because of politicians but largely through the grassroots efforts of volunteers — many of them nearly forgotten today.
"What I wanted to do more than anything else was to tell the stories of the unsung heroes," May said of Bending Toward Justice. "That's the contribution I hope the book makes."
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson are, understandably, the focus of most accounts of how the Voting Rights Act was created. However, long before 1965 — May said even he was surprised to find that the beginnings of the fight went back as far as the 1930s — activists were working to register African American voters in the South and help them exercise their right to cast a ballot.
It wasn't easy. Local voter registration workers imposed hefty poll taxes and required so-called literacy tests for African Americans that, May said, "A Harvard Ph.D. couldn't have passed." Registrars kept irregular hours and refused paperwork if they detected even the most minor kind of error. And would-be voters often feared for their jobs, or even their lives, if they insisted on their rights.
Against this background, May's book tells what Publishers Weekly has called "a vivid, fast-paced morality tale with clearly recognizable heroes, like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Bernard Lafayette, … and villains, like Sheriff Jim Clark." Lafayette took up the cause of registering voters in Selma, Ala., a city where racism was so dominant that many civil rights groups had given up on making progress there and where Clark was known for particularly vicious tactics of intimidation.
Bending Toward Justice has been widely praised in other reviews by distinguished historians, political scientists and journalists as well. The book "could not be more timely," historian Robert Dallek said, adding, "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."
A key section of the Voting Rights Act is the subject of a case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in February and is expected to rule on it by early summer. Shelby County, Ala., is asking the court to strike down the part of the law that requires certain jurisdictions to get federal Justice Department approval before they make any changes to their election laws, as a way to ensure that the changes don't hurt minorities. Attorneys for the county have argued that the law has already accomplished its purpose and is no longer necessary.
May said his research convinced him that argument is simply wrong. He cited recent moves in various states to make voter registration more difficult and voting more restrictive.
"The Voting Rights Act was created not just to combat poll taxes and literacy tests but also other devices they [officials] might come up with," he said. "We're going to see more of this voter suppression, not less, as we evolve into a more multi-racial society … and it will be a very severe blow" if the act is weakened.
Bending Toward Justice has been named a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the History Book Club, the Military Book Club, The Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club and Black Expressions Book Club. On Wednesday, April 10, May spoke at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., about his work.
May specializes in American political, diplomatic and social history since 1945. He is a winner of the Allan Nevins Prize of the Society of American Historians and is the author of four previous books, including his 2005 The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo.