WILKES-BARRE — After decades of civil rights activism, Ronald L. Felton has kept a distinctly low profile over the past seven months.
The 60-year-old leader of the Wilkes-Barre branch of the NAACP said recovery from kidney and heart failure has kept him from speaking out on issues.
That was before a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month in which justices ruled 5-4 to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which was enacted in 1965. So-called “pre-clearance” sections of the act gave the U.S. Justice Department veto power over local election changes in states, counties and municipalities with a history of election regulations that discriminated against minorities.
“Nothing has since inspired, and so motivated me,” Felton said.
The high court held that the 1975 formula used to determine which districts are subject to the provision is outdated, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that the formula “is unconstitutional in light of current conditions” and “based on decades-old data and eradicated practices.”
Meanwhile, a pending voter ID law in Pennsylvania is facing a constitutional challenge.
With the issue back in Congress’ hands — and at the center of political debate during a summer when racial issues have dominated the American landscape — Felton spoke at length about race, politics and his future at the helm of the local NAACP. Below are highlights from that conversation, condensed for presentation in this format.
You mention the U.S. Supreme Court decision as motivating you to speak out. Do you see any parallels between that ruling, amended voting laws in other states and the pending voter ID law case in Pennsylvania?
Oh yeah, definitely. This is a solution looking for a problem. When the Brennan Center For Justice (at New York University School of Law) did their review, they found you had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than you did of encountering voter fraud.
Why do you think such laws are being proposed?
Obviously, I think it is being done to suppress the black vote, to suppress the minority vote. In the state of Pennsylvania there are more registered Democrats than there are Republicans, by about a million. African-Americans almost make up that difference — at least 600,000 to 700,000.
(Editor: Officials with the Pennsylvania Democratic Party said there are about 600,000 registered African-American Democrats in the state.)
Do you think there are issues involving IDs that need to be addressed?
Most people, we have a driver’s license or something like that. But I was surprised by how many people didn’t fall into that category. But many of them are still able to receive benefits from Social Security or other kinds of federal benefits. So why not, when a young person becomes 18 years of age, put a photo on their Social Security card? You may not have to renew them as often, but they’re free. You’re supposed to be able to get 10 Social Security cards in your lifetime. I worked for Social Security. I’ve seen people who had as many as 20. So I think they should look into that as a possibility.
You have encouraged local people to attend an Aug. 24 voting rights rally in Washington, D.C. Tell us about your concerns with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Last year you had Voter ID and all kinds of stuff going on across the country. Take Ohio, and the stuff that they were doing.
(Editor: An Ohio law passed in 2011 would have limited early voting provisions including weekend voting. Democratic critics alleged that this was intended to make it more difficult for the elderly, disabled, students, minorities and the poor to vote because many of them typically vote for Democrats. It was repealed in May 2012, amid mounting pressure for a referendum on the legislation.)
We were worried, the NAACP and other groups. But you know what? People showed up. The people were willing to wait in long lines to exercise their right to vote — some stood for seven, eight hours — to exercise that right.
And I think that all Americans, all of us, should be outraged that American citizens are having difficulty voting when we can go into foreign countries and promote democracy, and then deny it to some of our own people. That’s wrong.
Basically, what this Supreme Court has done has thrown the issue back to Congress, understanding that Congress is too polarized.
Do you think President Obama’s race is a factor in creating a more polarized political environment?
Absolutely. I remember reading before the (2008) election, one white supremacist saying that he hoped Obama would win, because he hoped that that would help their recruiting efforts.
And then, in this past election, in 2012, the percentage of African-Americans who voted outperformed the whites, and that’s the first time that happened.
(Editor: Census Bureau figures released this year found that 66.2 percent of eligible blacks voted in the 2012 presidential election, outpacing the 64.1 percent figure for non-Hispanic whites. Blacks were the only race or ethnic group to show a significant increase between the 2008 and 2012 elections in the likelihood of voting, census research found.)
Why do you need to come up with these rules to make voting more difficult? Why is there so much hatred? I don’t understand it.
Talk about the relationship between black people and the Republican Party. It has changed over the course of history. Why is that?
It wasn’t until (Franklin D.) Roosevelt that African-Americans became mostly Democratic. They used to be Republicans because of Lincoln and the Civil War and all that.
The Republicans are fighting over the Hispanic vote, and they should be fighting over our vote, too. I don’t’ think they want to address some of the issues that we are concerned about.
What I can’t understand is, they have alienated the black vote, they’re not sure what they want to do with the Hispanic vote. With young people, they’re saying you can’t use your college ID.
And then, on top of it, I can’t understand why they are going after the women like they are. They talk about government overreach, but yet they are prepared to reach into the woman’s womb.
Are you disappointed in President Obama for anything?
No, because he is the president of the United States. A lot is being expected of him. I know some of us wish he could speak out more strongly or more forcefully, but I understand he is the president of the United States. And I think most of us, in our community, know that.
Are you disappointed in the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program?
You know what? I think (former government contractor Edward) Snowden took an oath. I took an oath when I joined the United States Air Force to uphold the Constitution of these United States.
It’s a double edged-sword. We should know what our government is doing in our name, but I honestly believe we tell too much. Are you going to tell the terrorists everything we’re doing? You can’t do that. But I understand (the spying) is a hard thing, for civil libertarians, to justify.
Do you feel that civil rights gains made 50 years ago are being turned back?
Absolutely. You’ve got what they’re doing with the Voting Rights Act, and then you have this recent Trayvon Martin verdict. This is like the wild, wild West. Why would you have these stand your ground laws?
(Ed: Pennsylvania has its own version, passed in 2011.)
These laws like this are meant to benefit the white folks. Because now, as a white person, if you get into an altercation with a black person, if you feel that your life is threatened, you can use deadly force. My son, he’s a hardworking young man, and he’s respectful, and he’s not out there doing anything to harm anyone. He could be walking down the street. If somebody feels threatened, that’s the end. And that’s not right. We’re a better country than this.
What was your first reaction to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Martin’s shooting death?
Was I really surprised? No. I don’t think the prosecution did a great job. How could you, in the same state, have a law where a woman fires a warning shot against her husband — who she has a (protective order) against — give her 20 years, and you can’t convince a jury to give Zimmerman some time? Something ain’t right.
Do you think there is something different or unique about Florida, and the way the laws are structured, or the political landscape there?
I don’t think it’s necessarily unique to Florida.
What it’s telling us is that people have got to start paying attention and participating in the political process. I believe we as a people, black folk, don’t take strong enough interest in the political process. We need to vote as strongly in local elections as we are in national elections.
Do you think there are issues unique to black people that may keep some from participating in the electoral process?
Yeah, a lot of people don’t believe their vote counts. But it does. It means a lot. It would mean a lot if we showed up in these off-year elections. My honest belief? The next great milestone for us is our ability to engage in the political process.
And what about your personal future with the local NAACP?
This is my ninth term. At the end of next year, I will have completed 18 years. I was hoping to do 20 and then call it quits. I am trying to prepare someone to be my successor.
We have come a long way in Wilkes-Barre, from the time we were a unit of anonymity, and nobody knew about it. Now, people call us from all over Northeastern Pennsylvania.
We’ve done some good things to help people. Where I get the most joy is when you’re out in public and somebody walks up and says, “you’re the NAACP! Whoa. Thank you, you’re doing a good job.” That’s where you get your inspiration.
What parting wisdom would you offer to your eventual successor?
What we do, what the NAACP does, is listen to both sides of the story — there’s two sides to every story — not to do something simply because someone screams racism. Be sure that you have all of the facts. Don’t back down when you feel you are speaking out for righteousness.
One thing I can say, the NAACP this year has done 15 years of the diversity picnic, where we bring people together. We’ve had racial summits, where we’ve brought people together. We try to give people an environment to speak in where they don’t feel they’re going to be called a racist for having questions. We had three racial summits that provided us with that. We had a former white supremacist take part in the summit.
Whoever takes over, be fair and be honest and do what you feel is right.