WASHINGTON – Joel Finkelstein is an accidental witness to one of the seminal events of the civil rights movement, the signing in 1965 of the Voting Rights Act.
He was a year out of law school at Cornell when he received the call to head to the Capitol for the signing. Now 83, Finkelstein still isn’t sure how he ended up witnessing the signing — on his 25th birthday — but figured President Lyndon Johnson wanted people who had worked on the bill to be present.
Finkelstein helped write the law as a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
“Well, I was one of the staff and that’s how I got there,” he said.
Finkelstein had wanted to work for the Justice Department as long as he could remember. He was raised in Savannah, Georgia, and had gone to undergraduate school at Tulane in New Orleans.
“I was not unfamiliar with what went on in the South,” he said.
It was a time when some of the nation’s best young lawyers sought work at the Justice Department, where Finkelstein recalls working with such figures as famed civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall — then the U.S. solicitor general and soon to be a Supreme Court justice — and John Doar, who led the Justice Department’s desegregation efforts in the South. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination left the lawyers uncertain about the fight for civil rights.
“There was concern within the department, and I’m talking of this as chatter amongst the lawyers that worked there, as to whether Johnson would be aggressive in the pursuit of civil rights legislation,” he said. “As it turned out, not only was he aggressive, he was far more aggressive and politically adept than President (John F.) Kennedy. I think much to the surprise of many of us, what he pursued was far beyond anything we expected.”
Finkelstein said he was “star-struck” as he stood about four rows behind Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights and congressional leaders at the signing of the Voting Rights Act, remembering the moment as overwhelming.
Still, he said, the magnitude of the law would not become clear to him until decades later.
He and others were at a ceremony during the Obama administration that involved Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights activist, and Doar, who had been the former assistant attorney general in the department’s civil rights division, when members of the division who had worked on the law were asked to stand.
“People not only stood, but they came over and tried to reach out and touch us,” Finkelstein said. “I just turned to my wife, and I said I never realized that this act that I worked on had such a momentous effect on so many people.”
Today the framed signing pen and note he received from the 1965 ceremony that turned the bill into law are among his most treasured possessions.
He recalls how he felt in 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional the way states were included on the list of those needing to get advance approval for voting-related changes, Within weeks, he says, some Republican-controlled legislatures began passing laws meant to “go around the spirit of the act."
“On a personal level, it looked to me like I was watching my house burn down because what they did was remove the enforcement provision in the guts of the Voting Rights Act,” he said.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court reinforced a core aspect of the law in upholding a challenge to an Alabama redistricting map that plaintiffs had argued diluted the influence of Black voters. Finkelstein said he believes those protections are necessary for a true representative government.
“If you want a democracy, you must have the ability to vote — and not only to vote but to have your vote counted,” he said.
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