Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Kirsten Chen, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ari Berman about his book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Kirsten Chen: Give Us the Ballot was tremendously rich in history and detailed facts. How did you manage the volume of research needed to complete this?
Ari Berman: Considering the history of voting rights, I had a sprawling amount of time to cover. So, I tried to focus the narrative prior to starting the research. This meant figuring out major themes and “connective tissue”—e.g. characters that could be pulled through the entire narrative, or characters that fully embodied the story we wanted to tell.
And really, I was telling two intertwining narratives: the narrative of revolution and all the good things that have happened since the VRA, and the resulting counterrevolution to that progress. So I focused on finding the through-points that propelled both sides.
I always outline—that’s how I work. As I did the research, the outline would adjust, but I always knew where I was headed.
KC: Did you conduct many interviews? Who was the most interesting to learn more about?
AB: I did conduct a lot of interviews, partly because I’m a journalist so that’s just how I’m used to reporting, but also because there were a lot of things that took place before I was born or before there were good records. While there may have been a newspaper article or some old archives for something that had happened, say, in the sixties in Mississippi, there wasn’t likely to be much TV footage. So, I relied on people’s memory to make me feel like I was there and help bring the story to life. I would look into a case and ask myself: where is the human story behind this? Then I’d talk with whomever I could find: the lawyers involved, the plaintiffs, or family members of them if the plaintiff was deceased.
One of the highlights for me was just being able to spend time with Congressman John Lewis. He’s such a well-known historical figure, but usually everyone asks him the same questions—about Selma, the Bloody Sunday march in ‘65. And I talked about that with him, too, but then I talked with him about everything that happened after. I felt like he really opened up with me then. I was also with him on civil rights pilgrimages in 2013 and 2015 so I had an up-close look traveling with him, too. It was a surreal experience; he’s a legitimate American icon. There were a lot of interesting interviews, but he was kind of the one that had the most moral force.
KC: In Give Us the Ballot, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) is positioned as not only a foundational element to the Civil Rights movement, but the absolute key to enforcing the Civil Rights Act. This was also portrayed in the film Selma and more recently on John Oliver, which is when you know something is starting to gain attention. As a political writer and commentator whose finger is on the metaphorical pulse of American society, how much do you feel this “connection” is wholly understood by most citizens and lawmakers?
AB: I don’t think most people know this history. I think they know there was a VRA, but I don’t think they know what it did or what came after its passage. One thing that struck me about the movie Selma was how many people I knew that weren’t aware of the history of Bloody Sunday. That’s really why I wanted to write this book. I pitched the book right after the Supreme Court had heard the Shelby County case challenging the VRA but hadn’t yet come to a decision. But I kind of saw what was coming and knew voting rights would be a big topic. Ultimately, I felt like people didn’t truly know or understand this history, and not only Selma but the 50 years since. So it was really, really important to show that the fight didn’t end in 1965.
KC: The book delves into the many forms of voter oppression – most recently: the myth of voter fraud and the subsequently-produced voter ID laws. Are these measurements any less blatantly discriminatory now than they were 60 years ago during Jim Crow?
AB: They’re more subtle, but Voter ID laws are just another iteration of poll taxes and literacy tests because they’re an attempt to determine who can and cannot participate in the political process. Technically a voter ID card needs to be made free, but the underlying documents that you need to get the card are not free and not required to be free (e.g. birth certificate). Not only that, but there are people who were born at home in the segregated south who don’t have a birth certificate—and obtaining one can be an expensive and time-consuming process. One woman in the book even had to obtain a lawyer to track down her birth certificate in Louisiana.
KC: Related, you discuss how legislators “fail to protect voting rights by invoking state’s rights.” How much do you think well-crafted vernacular and ideology like “states’ rights” and “voter fraud” plays a part in baiting otherwise-innocent citizens to the wrong side of history?
AB: If you say “voter fraud” enough times, people will just start to believe it. That’s what has happened recently. People see the headline but not the fine print and so the facts (that voter fraud is very rare) are lost. Similarly, in the 1960s “states’ rights” became a big buzzword because who wouldn’t want to be for the right of their states? People started wisening up and realizing they couldn’t use blatantly racist rhetoric anymore, so they started using codewords and it’s been very effective. Plus, when the code words are exposed, they just come up with new code words.
KC: The book follows the natural, parallel arcs of government and culture in the story of civil rights, entwining anecdotes with insight into regulatory reform. Ultimately, which do you believe has a stronger impact when it comes to civil rights and progress in general: government or culture – and why?
AB: I’m not sure I thought about this when writing the book, but it’s interesting to consider. Government was clearly needed to win the right to vote; it wasn’t just going to happen without the power of the federal government. And the protests were all aimed creating conditions for the federal government to step in. At the same time, there was a whole culture around the movement that made this possible. You don’t just show up in Selma one day and almost get killed. There was a very strong community behind it. And there’s always been a community surrounding the VRA who continued to support it—into the 70s and 80s when it wasn’t the “sexy” thing to get behind anymore. But there was the counterrevolution, too, which produced the court of Roberts, Thomas and Scalia, etc.. Culture played a big part, but ultimately the government decided what did or didn’t happen.
KC: There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Justice Scalia’s replacement, or just replacing him in general. How important is it for Obama to get this in before year’s end?
AB: I think it would be hugely important. Appointing Supreme Court Justices is one of the most important things, if not the most important, that a president does. That’s said every election cycle, but I think people are actually going to get it this time because there’s a lot more attention on it now. It was fascinating to study the Earl Warren court of the 1960s and all the amazing things that court did. But because of that, there was a concerted movement on the right to undercut everything from the Warren era and I think the Roberts court has embodied much of that. There’s been a conservative supreme court my entire lifetime and that’s depressing to think about. At some point something has to give.
KC: We’re at the beginning of a very important election year - do you think the essential gutting of the VRA from the Shelby decision is going to be tremendously impactful or will we see a revolt from the people as we have in the past?
AB: In 2012 there was definitely something of a backlash to the backlash. What I find interesting about the 2012 election is that voter turnout declined among every demographic group (compared to 2008) except among African Americans 55 and older. I think people who most acutely lived through Jim Crow were most determined to not have their voices silenced. I think that was very powerful but it will be harder to do that in 2016 without Obama on the ballot.
This will also be the first presidential election since the Supreme Court has gutted the VRA, so some of the tools used in 2012 that helped voters overcome barriers, those protections are no longer there. And it’s going to be difficult to challenge these laws through the courts —that’s where voter mobilization comes in and why it’s important that we talk about it now, not one month before the election when it’s too late.
KC: Of your contemporaries, who are some you strongly encourage others to be reading?
AB: For my own research I read a ton of books. John Lewis’ autobiography Walking with the Wind was beautiful. A lot of autobiographies can be trite or predictable, but his was beautifully written and honest. Alex Keyssar’s The Right To Vote is an incredibly comprehensive history of voting rights.
Honestly, I read a lot of fiction when I’m not working—some of my favorite writers are Jhumpa Lahiri, Colm Toibin, and Marilynn Robinson.
Ari Berman is a political correspondent for The Nation and an investigative journalism Fellow at the Nation Institute. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and he is a frequent commentator on MSNBC and NPR. His first book, Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, was published in 2010. He lives in New York City. Find him on Twitter @AriBerman.
Kirsten Chen is a first-year MFA student who writes poetry and fiction that plays with both the cerebral and emotional elements of everyday life. She assistant-produced the short film Fruit Detective, founded the artist collective BTP and blogs at tangentpursuit.com.