Bending Toward Justice

The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy

Bending Toward Justice

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 18 illustrations Published: December 2014

Author: Gary May

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, History > U.S. History, Politics > Political Science

A vivid and fast-paced history, Gary May's Bending toward Justice offers a dramatic account of the birth and precarious life of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It is an extraordinary story of the intimidation and murder of courageous activists who struggled to ensure that all Americans would be able to exercise their right to vote. May outlines the divisions within the Civil Rights Movement, describes the relationship between President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr., and captures the congressional politics of the 1960s. Bending toward Justice is especially timely, given that the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 invalidated a key section of the Voting Rights Act. As May shows, the fight for voting rights is by no means over.


"Bending Toward Justice is a book of the classical phase [of the Civil Rights Movement], a lively and unabashedly partisan account of Selma and the Voting Rights Act. . . . May tells the story in his own way, and he is able to add many details."  — Louis Menand, The New Yorker

"Have we—at long last—overcome? Not yet, University of Delaware historian Gary May makes clear in his exemplary account of the landmark law." — Kevin Boyle, Washington Post

"May accomplishes what he set out to do, rendering 'a dramatic account of the struggle that finally won African Americans the ballot.' It's a story that is chilling in many ways and inspiring in others. . . . May explores the testy relationship between the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson with nuance and detail. . . . And May's account of Johnson facing down Alabama Gov. George Wallace over Wallace's refusal to force county registrars to register black voters is one of the best descriptions anywhere of the fabled 'LBJ Treatment.'"  — Paul Jablow, Philadelphia Inquirer

"May’s book is a great introduction to voting rights at a moment when the subject is drawing more attention than any time since 1965."  — Ari Berman, The Nation

"May’s lively and cogent history of the Voting Rights Act is indispensable reading for anyone concerned about the erosion of voting rights that has accompanied the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, especially as the issue is still up for debate. . . . May has constructed a vivid, fast-paced morality tale. . . . By focusing on Selma, May pays tribute to the courage of otherwise ordinary people and makes a case for the continued relevance of this legislation.”  — Publishers Weekly

"Gary May's compelling book about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is both timely and deeply historical. . . . The second half of the book examines in fascinating detail the passage of the law itself and its aftermath. May is careful to include and address critiques of the act from political and legal perspectives."  — Margaret M. Russell, California Lawyer

"An illuminating history of a law that remains all too relevant." — Booklist

"Compelling. . . . This lucid investigation of the [Voting Rights Act's] history relates its critical importance to American democracy."  — Library Journal

"Anyone interested in understanding the extent of the damage, actual and symbolic, to the voting rights of racial and ethnic minorities caused by this monumental decision [Shelby County v. Holder] would do well to read May's book. . . . Once the reader has finished the book, she will have a good grasp of the long, hard, often dangerous battle Blacks and their allies have fought since the end of Reconstruction to achieve equal voting rights, the terrible sacrifices champions of voting rights—particularly southern Blacks—have made in behalf of this goal, and the importance the VRA has had in partially achieving the goal."  — Chandler Davidson, African American Review

"By coincidence, the very weekend before the Supreme Court’s decision disemboweled [the Voting Rights Act], I had finished reading this masterful new account of the events leading up to its passage. . . . You will not find in one volume a more compelling story of the heroic men and women who struggled for the right to vote, or a more cinematic rendering of the political battle to enact the law, or a more succinct telling of the long campaign to subvert it. . . . [Gary May] has written a book that could change this country again, if every citizen read it.” — Bill Moyers, Moyers and Company

"May’s eminently readable book is particularly timely . . . [and] contains a wealth of information about the events that led to the enactment of the 1965 statute—and about the dedication and heroism of little-known participants in the events that came to national attention in 1964 and 1965." — Justice John Paul Stevens The New York Review of Books

"Gary May's superb new book . . . offer[s] a grim reminder of how truly awful things were for Southern Blacks before the [Voting Rights Act] was enacted, and how hard Southern whites worked to suppress their votes, long after they were legally granted the franchise. He details the beatings, deaths, police-led violence, and brutality that culminated in the events of 'Bloody Sunday' in March of 1965."
— Dahlia Lithwick Slate

"Gary May’s compelling history of why and how the Voting Rights Act advanced the promise of American life could not be more timely. Every member of the Supreme Court and every citizen interested in the widest possible access to the ballot box will want to read May’s book. It should be recognized as the standard work on this most important subject."  — Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

“In this vivid and beautifully written page-turner, May brings the story of the Voting Right Act to life in an altogether new way by deftly drawing out the personal stories and voices of this epoch-making statute. At a time when the future of the Voting Rights Act is uncertain and up for debate, May’s book could not be more timely—or more readable.”  — Richard M. Valelly, author of The Two Reconstructions: the Struggle for Black Enfranchisement

"Gary May’s dramatic Bending Toward Justice brings alive the critical dynamic between grass roots advocacy and political leadership which produced the most significant advance in civil rights since the Emancipation Proclamation. How this victory was achieved provides vital lessons to any citizen concerned about the importance of voting rights protections and the dangers and challenges to those rights today."  — Nick Kotz, author of Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America

"It’s hard to believe that a pivot in American history as transformative as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is only now getting its first book-length treatment, but Gary May is the ideal historian for the job. With confidence and concision, he navigates between a landmark bridge in Selma, Alabama, and the also highly contended committees of Congress to produce a compelling narrative of the civil rights movement’s ultimate triumph: the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the ensuing federal legislation guaranteeing universal suffrage. By following the struggle over voting rights into the present day, May’s fine book provides vivid proof that history is never history."  — Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Gary May is Professor of History at the University of Delaware. He is the author of The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Prologue: The Most Powerful Instrument ix

Preface to the Paperback Edition xxiii

1. Planting the Seed 1

2. An Ideal Place 25

3. "Give Us the Ballot!" 53

4. Nothing Can Stop Us 85

5. To the Promised Land 125

6. The Die is Cast 149

7. Breaking Down Injustice 171

8. Where the Votes Are 203

9. The Struggle of a Lifetime 237

Acknowledgments 255

Notes 257

Index 303
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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