As the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the debate on whether to preserve the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a national news organization is taking a bold step in covering the issue: They're asking Americans to share their stories of the historic legislation's passage.
The PBS NewsHour Voting Rights Act Oral History project is collecting these first-person accounts -- via telephone voicemail -- until the U.S. Supreme Court announces its decision in a case known as Shelby County vs. Holder.
The news team invites anyone with personal memories of the Voting Rights Act's passage to call 703-594-6PBS and leave up to a three-minute voicemail telling the story of how the act played into their lives.
"No matter what the Supreme Court decides in this particular case, it's a bookmark in history," NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni told The Skanner News. "Our specific goal is that we're going to keep soliciting these stories through the Supreme Court's decision, which will probably be in June."
In the case, Shelby County, Ala. – which is near Birmingham – is challenging the terms of Congress's 2010 reauthorization of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows the federal government control over the voting practices of local governments with a history of racial discrimination.
The federal government's position has been upheld in court twice since the act was reauthorized, and the Supreme Court is handling the final appeal by Shelby County. News reports of the first day of oral arguments before the Supreme Court indicated the Court – now considered dominated by a narrow majority of political conservatives – is leaning against upholding the law.
The PBS oral history project works like this: A participant phones NewsHour and leaves their story on the voicemail; staff then contacts the participant, confirms their identity, and arranges for a photo, which is then posted on the website with the participant's oral history recording.
Some of these photos so far have been taken by young family members who then send the photo back to the NewsHour staff digitally.
And that is the beauty of the project -- bringing together senior citizens with a younger audience to create not just a digital news product but a way to bring the history alive in the voices of those who lived it.
"That was our exact goal because our broadcast audience trends older -- these are people who have witnessed history, but they don't always go to our website," Bellantoni said. "But our younger online audience is hungering for this history.
"Listening to America can teach us all a lot," Bellantoni said. "Remembering history is still important."
(Click here for a pocket history of the Voting Rights Act by NewsHour senior correspondent Ray Suarez)