Request a Professor's Review Copy
Stewart Burns



Come to Washington D.C.

Come to
Washington, D.C.
August 24th &
August 28th, 2013
(read more)

Four Girls Jubilee, September 15, 2013

Four Girls Jubilee
Call to Action
September 15, 2013
(read more)

 Before I offer potential remedies or courses of action to challenge the evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, I need to say something about the relationship of civil rights to human rights and how important it is to conceive of our pantheon of rights in an integral, holistic fashion.

When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a staff retreat of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in May 1967, he upped the ante of the black struggle for freedom and justice. “It is necessary for us to realize,” he explained, “that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights. When you deal with human rights you are not dealing with something clearly defined in the Constitution. They are rights that are clearly defined by the mandates of a humanitarian concern.”

During the previous two years, when it became evident that the historic civil rights laws (including the Voting Rights Act) would not sweep away racism or poverty, he had come to see the inadequacy of individual rights. He grasped that “civil rights” carried too much baggage of the dominant tradition of American individualism and not enough counterweight from a tradition of communitarian impulses, collective striving, and common good. This subterranean tradition had been kept alive mainly by peoples of color, especially by blacks and American Indians. The polar strains of individualism and collectivism needed to be reconciled. His conception of rights shifted to a richer, comprehensive meaning that reflected his underlying biblical values.

By 1967 King seemed to be following the example of Malcolm X, who near the end of his life stressed the need to “expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level—to the level of human rights.” If the two leaders had been able to compare notes during Malcolm’s last year, they would have discovered that each was drawing similar conclusions about the necessity to go beyond constitutional rights.

Both Martin and Malcolm were reconstructing the legacy of their forbears, such as Gabriel Prosser, Frederick Douglass, John Mercer Langston, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois. From the end of the 18th century, African-American leaders had grounded their interpretation of rights in black spirituality and in what they saw as the divinely authorized Declaration of Independence, with its “amazing universalism,” in King’s words. Many African Americans had perceived their human rights, no matter how poorly fulfilled, as a covenant with their personal God intervening in history on the side of justice.

“Blacks always believed in rights in some larger, mythologic sense—as a pantheon of possibility,” legal scholar Patricia Williams noted.

So as we think about how to protect and preserve the Voting Rights Act, let us not lose sight of the complex web of human rights that voting rights embeds within, all of which needs to be expanded and sustained.

Leave a Reply