The Bard said it best—what’s past is prologue. So here we are in the midst of another campaign for voting rights. As in voting rights for American citizens. Today, 50 years after a seminal voting rights legislative victory, people are back in the streets—again—marching to ensure citizens are not denied the ballot. Ironically there is perhaps no better time to raise the issue as the overheated primary season focuses on getting out the vote. And on the day that we honor a man who led a movement to guarantee voting rights for every American.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stood next to President Lyndon Johnson when he signed into law the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Last year thousands marked the 50th anniversary in Selma, Alabama. Selma was the epicenter of the civil rights movement’s voting rights campaign, where two murders and a bloody beating of unarmed demonstrators finally grabbed the nation’s attention. Selma’s anniversary event drew celebrities from near and far including Georgia’s Congressman John Lewis who was nearly beaten to death there in 1965, and President Barack Obama. Also in the crowd about 20 Republicans-- notable as Republican led state legislatures have moved to change polling places, restrict voting hours, end early voting and require special IDs to vote.
That’s in addition to Draconian efforts like the closing of 31 DMV locations in Alabama. Alabama lawmakers announced the closings not long after they okayed a voter ID law, requiring voters-- even those who don’t drive --to get a driver’s license in order to vote. Most of the closed offices are located in densely populated areas of African-Americans. Residents who now don’t have much chance of getting the required ID. Alabama is one of 9 states and municipalities once prevented from making election changes without permission under the Voting Rights Act. No more. Three years ago the Supreme Court ruled Section 4 of the Act unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts claimed the voter suppression tactics of the civil rights era do not exist today, saying, “our country has changed.”
There is a bipartisan bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act. And Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has signed on as an additional co sponsor. She was inspired by last year’s Selma celebration. But, so far no movement in bringing that bill to the floor.
In a speech at Oberlin College, Dr. King told students, “The time is always right to do what is right.” It was just months before the 1964 election when many Southern states prevented black residents from voting. Now, less than a year before the Presidential election, millions of voters—many of them minorities-- are locked out of the ballot box again.
I’m infuriated that we’re back where we started on voting rights. Frustrated that there is not a bigger groundswell of Americans speaking up against measures, which are nakedly political and fundamentally un-American. On this 30th official Martin Luther King Day, a reality check from Dr. King himself who often said all “progress is precarious. “