This time last year, virtually no one could have predicted that today both of the nation's two major political parties would be headed by African-Americans. Democrat Barack Obama's historic election as the first black president and Michael S. Steele's elevation to chairman of the Republican National Committee mark a watershed in race relations in this country that is literally unprecedented.
Yet neither man could have hoped to achieve his present position without the political empowerment of African-Americans made possible by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed blacks across the South access to the ballot. That's why a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision narrowing the scope of protections the law affords minority voters seems like an unfortunate step backward.
The case involved a North Carolina district that originally included a majority of black voters but was redrawn to reflect demographic changes after the 2000 Census. The new district was 39 percent black, and it crossed two county lines, something prohibited by the state's constitution.
When one county challenged the new boundaries, state officials argued the law required them to create such "crossover districts" - in which blacks aren't a majority but still have enough voting strength to elect candidates who can win some white support - to give minority voters a reasonable chance of electing representatives of their choice.
But in a 5-4 ruling, the court said the law applies only to districts where blacks are at least half the voting-age population. The case may be a bellwether for a more far-reaching decision the court is expected to issue later this year on whether another section of the law, which requires 16 states and some counties, mostly in the South, to get federal approval before changing voting rules, is still relevant. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's acknowledgment in the North Carolina case that "racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history" offers hope the court will not completely abandon federal oversight of these cases.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder has said protecting voting rights will be a top priority in his Justice Department. When Maryland Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, whom Mr. Holder recently named to head the department's civil rights division, arrives in Washington, we urge him to vigorously fulfill that mandate.