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Burn the Papers. An uneasy stirring of conscience in 1957 finally moved Congress to pass a civil rights bill that allowed the Government to initiate suits in cases of voting discrimination or intimidation. Again, in 1960 and 1964, the laws were revised to make it easier for Justice Department lawyers to get action on voting suits. Still, the courts drifted along at a painfully slow pace. Seventy-one suits have been filed by the Government since the 1957 law was passed. Yet in only about a dozen of these cases have courts handed down orders with enough muscle actually to halt discrimination.
All in all, it was an exercise in futility. No sooner would the Government dislodge one unjust voting law than Southern legislatures would dream up another. "Then," says Nick Katzenbach, "you've got to bring suits to throw these out too. You've got to go all the way to the Supreme Court, and when you get that done, there's nothing to prevent them from coming up with something else."
Unsurprisingly, Justice Department lawyers devote an average of 28 months' hard labor to each such suit. In a Montgomery, Ala., case, for example, the Government had to analyze 36,000 pages of voter applications and subpoena 185 witnesses; six lawyers worked a full year just to prepare the case for court. When Congress authorized free Government access to registration records, Mississippi's legislature simply passed a law empowering state registrars to burn their papers. A voting-discrimination suit against officials in Selma was started in April 1961, but it was not until last month that an effective court order was producedand Selma's registration history, so eloquently depicted in current headlines, testifies to the effectiveness of that court order.
Aimed at the Barricades. As Selma's angry impatience exploded, Lyndon Johnson realized that the time was ripe to go after the widest possible support for his bill. Key figures in the bipartisan drafting were Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen, Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Katzenbach. Each man set his own legal staff to work, writing drafts of the new bill, refining, plugging loopholes, setting new standards, comparing notes. At each stage Lyndon Johnson studied the proposals and made suggestions. The 24th Amendment to the Constitution already outlaws poll taxes in federal elections, and now Johnson wanted a section abolishing poll taxes in local elections too. Katzenbach advised against it, since the Supreme Court is expected soon to rule on a suit involving Virginia's poll tax.
The product of the joint enterprise, as proposed in Congress last week, is based firmly on the 15th Amendment. More important, it is aimed precisely at the barricades that have delayed quick action in the past. Significantly, most of the power to act in voting cases would be moved out of the courts and into the hands of the executive branch. The bill would slam hardest at its biggest targets those states with the most outstanding records of voter discrimination.