Voting Rights: The Struggle Continues

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which many consider the most important civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The law gave the federal government oversight responsibility over elections in all or part of 15 states (including parts of New York, Michigan, and California) where there had been systemic exclusion of voters based on race, ethnicity, or economic status. Under the Voting Rights Act, states had to pre-clear any changes to voter eligibility rules or election conduct prior to implementing these changes.

The Voting Rights Act was the product of sustained agitation and protest.

The anniversary we celebrate today was many decades in the making. Decades of peaceful civil rights protests had been increasingly interrupted by intimidating violence by those who opposed full political rights for African Americans.

During the summer of 1964, more than a thousand out-of-state civil rights activists joined thousands of black Mississippians in a drive to register African-Americans to vote. The campaign, known as Freedom Summer, was met with a sustained campaign of violence. More than 1,000 Freedom Summer volunteers were arrested, and four out-of-state activists and three local activists fighting for voting rights were killed. More than three dozen African-American churches were burned or bombed in acts of intimidation.

The agitation and violence from this movement and others awakened many other Americans to the need for change.

The following May, violence against civil rights escalated with the Bloody Sunday confrontation at Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Dogs were unleashed on peaceful protesters and police mercilessly beat, whipped, tear-gassed, and bloodied 525 marchers who sought only to walk to the other end of the bridge and into a white neighborhood. Now-Rep. John Lewis suffered a fractured skull, and 57 others were also injured, some severely.

Eight days following Bloody Sunday, President Johnson presented the Voting Rights Act to Congress. He used the rest of the summer to call for justice, equal opportunity, and full political participation for African Americans.

Voting rights are again under attack.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we cannot lose sight of the fact that it is also a critical moment for voting rights in this country.  Today, we are witnessing the greatest assault on the right to vote since the law’s passage 50 years ago.   In 2013, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts threw out the most powerful portions of the law, barring the federal government from pre-clearing changes to state voting laws. The Court found that pre-clearance provisions were based on data that was four decades old and that significant racial progress has been made since 1965.

Fifteen states responded to the ruling by enacting stricter rules designed to limit voter participation. These have included voter ID laws that limit acceptable IDs to those that low-income people are less likely to have. Some states have also eliminated policies that expand voting participation by allowing same-day registration and expanded voting periods through things like early voting.

Earlier this week, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas' voter ID law violated the rights of black and Latino voters. The court ruled that the state failed to prove that voter fraud was a significant problem and that the particular forms of ID allowed and not allowed disadvantaged minority voters. Texas law permitted gun permits to be used as a form of ID, but not things like student IDs or utility bills.

One role of the federal government is to establish and protect basic standards.

A half century ago, as President Johnson lobbied hard for the Voting Rights Act, he invoked the federal government’s long established role to establish and protect basic rights. He promised to use the power of the Justice Department to make certain that all Americans had the right to vote.

The Voting Rights Act led to significant and immediate changes. A quarter million African Americans were added to voting roles, one-third of them registered by federal workers sent to protect and advance voting rights. Turnout among black voters in the South has exceeded that of white voters in four of 12 presidential elections that have occurred since 1965.

In 1965, African Americans held fewer than 1,000 elected offices nationwide; today, they hold more than 10,000. Latinos have moved from few elected offices in 1965 to 6,000 today, and Asian Americans went from about 100 elected offices to about 1,000 today, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Rights.

The struggle must continue.

Throughout American history, we have steadily expanded the right to participate as voters in our nation’s democracy. When the bold vision of democracy was first put forth in colonial times, only white men who owned property could vote and hold office. Though our progress toward this goal has been filled with painful setbacks, we have over time moved toward greater participation. Some of these achievements have come when citizens exercised their right to vote, but more have come when citizens have organized and fought for the very changes that have expanded participation and opportunities.

As with all things that are important, victories won and not defended can quickly be lost. We can honor the anniversary of this important day, and the sacrifice of bodies and lives of those who went before us, by taking a moment and passing on this story to others, and by contacting our state and federal officials and telling them that the Voting Rights Act matters.

The fight is far from over. We need to do more to protect the right to inclusion and participation. Part of doing more involves our own commitment to defend against those who seek to steal the hard-fought victories of 50 years ago.

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well written