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Judith Browne Dianis

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Bloody Sunday: Then and Now

Posted: 03/07/2012 4:12 pm

At 76, years old, Bettye Jones never imagined she could be denied her right to vote. Active in the Civil Rights movement, she held meetings in her home in support of voting rights. But now, because of Wisconsin's voter ID law, Jones is uncertain as to whether she will ever be able to cast a ballot again.

Jones was born at home in Tennessee during a time when African Americans in the South were denied hospital care. No birth certificate was filed and no evidence exists that she was born. Until now, it never presented a problem. Jones has a current Ohio driver's license and has dutifully voted since 1959. But when she moved to Wisconsin last year, she found she could not get the ID required by the state's new voting law because she could not prove she had ever been born.

Today we remember that March 7th "Bloody Sunday" morning in 1965 when ordinary people just like Jones assembled in Selma, Alabama, to march to the state capitol to demand their right to participate in democracy. We recall images of those tasked with protecting the public beating nonviolent protesters and attacking them with tear gas. But we also rejoice in the sacrifices made that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act and we take comfort in knowing that each of our voices will be heard on Election Day.

Jones no longer enjoys this comfort but is hopeful she once again may, and that the Voting Rights Act will once again confirm her right to choose those who represent her in government. She is a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit Advancement Project recently filed against the state of Wisconsin under the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits voting practices and procedures that produce discriminatory results and afford voters of color "less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process."

Signed into law on August 6th, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, which had been used to systematically disenfranchise Black Americans for close to a century. Passage of the law marked a watershed moment in American history. It was the culmination of years of struggle by African Americans for the right to vote -- a right they were originally guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments but had suffered decades of blood and tears trying to secure. For the first time since Reconstruction, the federal government assured every American, regardless of race, equal access to the ballot box.

As we settle into the 21st century, the relevance of the Voting Rights Act has been called into question. Opponents challenge its necessity given the significant political advances people of color have made since the Civil Rights era. While electing our first Black President does illustrate considerable progress, statistics show he was not the choice of most southern Whites. In Louisiana, for example, the President's support among White voters was ten percentage points lower than that of John Kerry in 2004. The Voting Rights Act is essential to safeguarding inclusive democracy, and the progress we have experienced would not have been possible if not for its enactment.

Last year, laws like Wisconsin's were introduced in states across the nation. They were signed into law in eight and have been reintroduced in 25 so far this year. Based on a template created and proliferated across state lines by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative engine funded by the right wing billionaire Koch Brothers and corporate board members, voter ID legislation tilts the hand of government in favor of corporate interests by keeping the demographics that tend to vote against those interests from casting a ballot in November -- African Americans, Latinos, seniors, young voters and people with disabilities.

For example, Wisconsin's new voter ID restriction has a discriminatory impact that moves us backward to a pre-1965 era. In that state, half of all African-American and Latino voters may be blocked from the voting booth because they do not have state-issued identification. An astounding 78 percent of Black men and 66 percent of Black women, ages 18 to 24, in Wisconsin, lack a state ID. This targeted impact of the law flies in the face of all that we gained by the sacrifices made when thousands marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

The Voting Rights Act is the most powerful weapon we have in ensuring that all Americans have the right to vote. Changes to voting legislation in Florida that limit early voting and place undue burdens on voter registration groups and in Texas, where over 600,000 already registered voters lack driver's licenses, are currently under review in federal court. And, the Justice Department recently denied approval of changes to South Carolina's law on the basis that it would unfairly impact minority voters. The state has filed a federal lawsuit to overturn the decision, a case which will likely reach the Supreme Court and leave a conservative bench to decide on the future of this vital piece of legislation.

Voter suppression laws threaten to roll back the clock on voting rights to a time the Voting Rights Act was intended to change. Whether fueled by bigotry and hatred or partisan gain and corporate interests, this push to dilute the vote of people of color is just an old game in a new box. Those billy club wielding police officers might have been replaced with corporate billionaires in suits and ties, but the threat is just as real and as dangerous as it ever was. Just ask Bettye Jones.

 

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