Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right... The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or National rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.
—President Lyndon Johnson, “The American Promise,” March 15, 1965
These words are from the well-known televised address President Johnson gave before a joint session of Congress urging members to move forward without delay on what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The speech and legislation came after the entire nation had spent days transfixed by events in Alabama. On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams set out with a group of 600 on a planned 50-mile peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery. Instead, state troopers brutally attacked the nonviolent protestors on the first day at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The televised images of “Bloody Sunday” and the injured marchers—including Lewis, whose skull was fractured—were a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. They roused great sympathy for the protesters and reminded all Americans that these marchers had to put their lives on the line for what should have been considered a basic American right: the right to vote.
On March 4, 2012, marchers returned to the road from Selma to Montgomery—but not just to revisit that moment in history that changed the course of our nation. They are marching again because in 2012, voting rights are once again under attack.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said to the crowd of thousands (I was among them) who finally completed the original march to Montgomery two weeks later: “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength... The confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma generated the massive power to turn the whole nation to a new course. A president born in the South had the sensitivity to feel the will of the country, and in an address that will live in history as one of the most passionate pleas for human rights ever made by a president of our nation, he pledged the might of the federal government to cast off the centuries-old blight.” In August 1965, the Voting Rights Act became law.
But right now many states are attempting to put new voting restrictions in place that parallel all the old tricks and turn back the clock on civil rights to the days when voting was used as a tool for political control and exclusion. The “centuries-old blight” now has a twenty-first century disguise. The latest restrictions include strict photo identification requirements limited to certain forms of government-issued ID, cuts on early voting and absentee voting, and new requirements for registration that make it much more difficult for voters to prove citizenship and residency and register to vote at all. The changes threaten to disenfranchise millions of people, and studies show young, minority, and low-income voters and voters with disabilities will be most affected. “It’s no coincidence that a nationwide rollback in voting rights for America’s most vulnerable citizens is happening just as elected officials mount unprecedented campaigns to slash investments in education and economic development,” said National Urban League president and CEO Marc Morial, as his organization launched their Occupy the Vote campaign on March 7. “[A] coordinated effort is underway to exclude from the political process the very citizens whose futures hang in the balance.”
Of course, our true most vulnerable citizens—children—have no vote and no voice. And all parents and adults concerned about the future have a responsibility to them to vote and make our own votes count. But when powerful forces start to chip away at the right to vote for some Americans, they threaten the American promise for all Americans. No American should be complicit in allowing this to happen.
The courts and state legislatures are taking a second look at some of these changes as the presidential primary process continues and the 2012 elections grow closer—and so the time to take action against new voter suppression laws is right now. As Representative John Lewis prepared to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march, he said, “Forty-seven years ago I spilled a little blood on that bridge but that was nothing compared to those who died so that we could live in a better America. We march today for what we did 47 years ago—for what is fair, what is right and for what is just.” The sacrifices made during the Civil Rights Movement must not be undermined today. The “command of the Constitution” is still “plain,” and denying Americans the right to vote is still “deadly wrong.” Do you know the voting policies in your own state? Educate yourself and join others to speak out and defeat threats to voting rights now.
Follow Marian Wright Edelman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChildDefender