Voting Rights Chief Shares Stories of a Life Spent on the Front Lines
As a teenager growing up in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s, John Tanner found himself in the middle of the battleground over civil rights in America.
“That was what was happening in Birmingham, it was sort of the center of the world,” said Tanner, who is now chief of the Voting Rights Section of the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, in a Nov. 9 speech in the Chesterfield Smith Ceremonial Classroom, sponsored by the American Constitution Society. “Civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s was everything. That’s what everyone talked about all the time. You were pretty much on one side or the other. And I was on the other.”
Tanner, who is white, said he became involved in the civil rights movement “as a result of how I was brought up and a certain recklessness in my character.”
Tanner worked on voter registration drives with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization founded in 1957 and later headed by one of its founders, Martin Luther King, Jr. His decision to become involved had a “somewhat socially isolating effect,” Tanner said. He recalled getting beaten up in fights, but said the adversity did little to deter him. The experience was a lot of fun, he said, and very rewarding.
“I would go into projects and knock on doors and take people to the federal registrars,” explained Tanner, who met King during this time. “Then I would hang around the SCLC headquarters and get in everyone’s way, lick envelopes and just sort of hang out, be there.”
It was during the 1960s that Tanner formed “the vision of what a just world would be.” Working for the Department of Justice for the last 30 years, he feels he has been able to achieve that vision. The department’s voting rights section enforces the Voting Rights Act of 1965, considered the most successful civil rights legislation in the nation’s history.
Tanner began working the department’s Voting Section in 1976 as a research analyst, attending law school at night at American University in Washington, D.C.
Upon graduation, he was hired under the Attorney General’s Program for Honor Law Graduates and had principal responsibility for federal voting rights enforcement in Alabama and Mississippi. After leaving his job to prosecute criminal violations of civil rights laws, Tanner returned to the voting section in 2002 as special litigation counsel to coordinate enforcement of the minority language provisions of the Voting Rights Act. He was the 2004 winner of the John Doar Award, the Civil Rights Division’s highest honor.
In his lecture, Tanner explained how the Voting Rights Act has broken down barriers and dramatically increased registration among minorities throughout the country over the years.
Still, there is much work to do. This year, the department has brought a record number of lawsuits — in communities that have attempted to return to at-large election systems and eliminate the singlemember districts, and other places where investigations have exposed poll workers who discriminate against various ethnic groups.
On the positive side, Tanner has seen many success stories — from groups of college students whose work has dramatically increased voter registration among minorities to foreign-speaking poll workers who have helped bring people to the polls who have never voted before. The work is very satisfying, he said.
“The difference that it has made in the treatment of people and in how we look at each other — again if you weren’t around in the ’50s and ’60s you will never appreciate it — but it is amazing.”