08/07/2005 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Marching for Voting, 1965-2005

Just as free speech is the first civil liberty, voting is the first civil right – for without either all our other civil liberties and rights wouldn’t mean much. But despite the Civil War’s Constitutional Amendments, it wasn’t until President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6, 1965 that the right to vote for Americans of color became a reality.

But this great writ is up for renewal in 2007. And because President Bush seems more interested in voting in Iraq than in America, yesterday's "Keep the Vote Alive!" march and rally in Atlanta sought to highlight the issue and urge President Bush to renew the measure. (I was there because Rev. Jesse Jackson asked me to attend and to contact the families of James Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, the slain civil rights workers, for a joint statement for the march.)

So 80 labor, civic and civil rights leaders convened yesterday morning for an 8AM breakfast at Paschal’s restaurant in Atlanta to kickoff this historic day. It was an impressive and spirited crowd. There was John Sweeney and Andy Stern (now of rival labor factions), as well as voting rights advocates Wade Henderson, Ted Shaw and Bruce Gordon, the new head of the NAACP. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois was applauded for being so right about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo torture, even if he used an excessive analogy. And he told a warm story about how he gave Judge John Roberts a biography of Judge Frank Thompson, a courageous southern judge on racial justice. “Even judges need heroes,” Durbin told Roberts.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi told us, “I guarantee that 100% of our Democratic caucus will vote to renew the Act.” She was joined by six members of the Black Congressional Caucus, including our own Charlie Rangel, California’s Maxine Waters and, of course, John Lewis, who narrowly avoided being beaten to death 40 years ago in the march that led to the law’s original enactment. “He earned his stars from his scars,” said the ever-rhythmic Jackson, who was the maestro of the morning and day, presiding over all with passion, wit and a sense of history.

Rev. Jackson walked us through the 1965 struggle, emphasizing that “while it was Black blood that was shed, the law benefited all people of color”, which was reflected by the large representation of Latino leaders at the breakfast too, such as the head of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. Jackson’s message was this: we all had to focus on forcing the President and Attorney General to renew Section 5 of the law, which required districts with a history of voter intimidation to “pre-clear” any new voting schemes which might again suppress voting.

Then we all loaded onto buses, with VIPs and dignitaries reduced again to mere high school seniors being told where to go and how to line-up in the march. I benefited enormously from taking the Lexington Ave. Subway Line daily because the march itself saw us packed tightly for a two mile hike in 90 degree weather. But it was so inspiring and cleansing to sing “we shall overcome” again walking down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in a group including Harry Belafonte, Willie Nelson and Andy Young that there were no complaints – not one.

Finally, we got to Herndon Stadium, where a crowd of probably 10,000 heard eloquent advocacy and buoyant music interspersed. Stevie Wonder and John Legend sang new songs about freedom and activism. And several Black Caucus members, such as Corine Brown of Florida and Stephanie Tubbs of Ohio, sharply attacked vote-counting in their pivotal states of Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004 – and they explained how they never would have been elected without the 1965 Act. Indeed, the numbers are stunning: because millions of previously disenfranchised voters were now going to the polls, there were 300 minority elected officials in 1965 but 10,000 in 2005.

In an era dominated by conservative voices and themes – how often do we hear Bush & Co. ever talk about democracy in the United States? – it was wonderful to be reminded about a great liberal success story. Call it the Law of Intended Consequences.

I was of course eager to contact Carolyn Goodman, Rita (Schwerner) Bender and Ben Chaney for a statement. I had first met the courageous Mrs. Goodman, Andy’s mother, in 1989 when my wife, Deni Frand, ran the Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner bus caravan from Mississippi to NYC on the 25th anniversary of their deaths. This past week in phone conversations, Carolyn expressed her support for our efforts and her regret that she couldn’t personally get down to Atlanta. “You know I’m almost 90 now and my schedule’s so busy,” she said in a strong voice belying her age. But she joyfully added, following the conviction a month ago of Edgar Ray Killen for participating in the murders four decades ago, “We’ve gotten justice – we’ve finally gotten justice.”

Here are my remarks yesterday in Atlanta:

“Sixty years ago today, a bomb exploded at Hiroshima and the world was never the same. Forty years ago today, the Voting Rights Act became law and the world was never the same. Which shows how history is an eternal struggle between hate and hope. Today we celebrate hope.

“If Americans are now crossing the oceans to fight for democracy, will you here commit to cross the street to make it work here at home? James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman crossed the street and crossed state lines to make sure that democracy worked in America, and gave their lives as a result. In their memory, allow me to read this statement on behalf of their proud families:

‘The families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner are proud to support Rev. Jackson's Keep the Vote Alive! march for one reason: it’s urgent to extend the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act that has enfranchised so many millions of Americans of color, a right which was obtained at the cost of many lives, including James, Andy and Mickey.

The struggle to assure democracy in America must continue.

The 1965 law and later renewals have had a profound and positive effect on voting patterns: millions of citizens who were excluded because of racial discrimination are now voting and participating in their government. Previously all-white legislatures and offices now look more like America.

But new threats are emerging which are like the literacy tests of old -- they sound neutral but operate to keep Americans of color down. One example is Georgia’s proposal requiring that voters obtain state-issued identification, which will have the effect of denying the franchise to many elderly, rural, and disabled voters and those who don’t drive. Some politicians say such laws are needed to stop undocumented voter fraud, but it’s more likely they’re instead designed to stop voters.

A renewed Voting Rights Act can assure that districts with a history of discrimination would still have to “pre-clear” proposals that risk suppressing the franchise all over again.

In honor of democracy, we urge the President and Congress to continue upholding our most cherished right -- the right to vote and make a great country even greater.’

So to honor the words of Dr. Martin Luther King at the Washington Monument in 1957 when he said ‘Give us the ballot, give us the ballot’ and to honor the great efforts of Rev. Jackson in convening us here and to honor the lives of James, Mickey and Andy, repeat after me -- Hope and Vote. Hope and Vote. Hope and Vote. Hope and Vote. Thank you.”