At the impressionable age of 10 years old, I stepped off an Eastern Airlines plane in Orlando, Florida, where countless orange groves had yet to be replaced by the wonders of a Disney development. The trip from New York had taken 12 hours due to thunderstorms in D.C., but after the long travel, what awaited me turned out to be a step back into the Antebellum South. Seared into my memory was my first encounter with segregated rest rooms and water fountains.
Grainy black and white images of German shepherds lunging at children, fire hoses turned on crowds, burned out buses -- these are vivid images from my childhood so realistically recounted in David Halberstam's 1998 work, The Children. He tells of the courage of the young college students at Fisk University who risked it all to integrate the lunch counters at Woolworth's and to ride the Freedom Buses into the Deep South.
I was again reminded of this same shameful period of U.S. history -- when wheels of government moved too slowly to right some very terrible wrongs -- while watching The Butler last weekend. As we pause to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it's important for us to remember what led Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and more than 250,000 others march on August 28, 1963.
Robert Caro's book, Passage of Power, describes the political birth of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Access to the voting booth had been out of reach for so many African-Americans before the VRA was signed into law. But by use of political skill, relationships and his understanding of the rules of the Senate, President Lyndon B. Johnson moved this country forward to allow all citizens the right to vote. It was not pretty -- and it was certainly not Government 101 -- but his hard work was necessary to prevent the powerful senators of the Old South from blocking the bill and dismissing the most tangible equality of opportunity a democracy has to offer.
But fast forward to 2011, 2012 and 2013, when an unprecedented number of state legislatures have rolled back this access by creating new barriers to voting. Laws that enact stringent voter ID requirements, restrictive residency requirements and diminish the days and hours for early voting have popped up all over the country. It is more important than ever to remember the struggle in the 1960s to gain access to the ballot. It was not as simple as signing these rights into law in 1965. It took every day citizens who put themselves on the line, risking jail, bodily harm and even death, to bring the awareness and pressure necessary to fully recognize voting as an inalienable right for all American citizens.
As we celebrate and memorialize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington, let us also remember the other quiet heroes, whose names we may have forgotten, but who insisted that this country live up to its ideals. Out of respect for all that they did, we must push back on the regressive voter suppression laws that are being passed today. Our elected officials and our courts must challenge these laws. Ordinary citizens must leave comfort zones to write letters, pressure their elected officials and, yes, march in protest to send a clear message that these are the same rights generations before us fought for a mere 50 years ago. In this, the work of all those quiet heroes, whose bodies bear the scars of beatings, will not have been in vain.
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