A Half Century's Legacy at a Crossroads

04/21/2015 12:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

In 1965, the 89th Congress and President Lyndon Johnson produced landmark laws that made education more attainable, health care more affordable, voting more accessible, housing more available, immigration more equitable, and the environment cleaner. The results were dramatic. The poverty rate went down, and graduation rates went up. Citizen participation increased and our environment got cleaner. Our nation was reinvigorated by new immigrants, and the golden years of our senior citizens were enriched.

Fiftieth-year celebrations are known as golden anniversaries, but recent court decisions and legislative enactments have casted us into something that seems more akin to a gilded age. Although our economy is recovering for those at the very top, far too many hardworking Americans struggle to stay afloat. Although the Affordable Care Act extended health insurance to millions of Americans, millions more go uninsured as Republican-controlled legislatures around the country refuse to expand Medicaid out of partisan spite and zealous ideology. Although more young people are graduating high school and pursuing post-secondary education and training, college costs are skyrocketing and our elementary and secondary schools differ widely in quality. Although the value of new immigrants is clear and convincing, reforms to our immigration system remain blocked by Republicans hostilities.

We are at a crossroads. The Republican budget seeks to destroy the legislative legacy of 1965 that made great differences in the lives of so many ordinary people. Democrats must defend our proud legacy and fight against the efforts of those who seek to devalue the worth of hardworking Americans.

• Fifty years ago, Democrats launched Head Start, created the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and passed a Higher Education law. Today, Republicans in Congress are proposing to cut Head Start and Early Head Start by $19 billion between 2016 and 2024 and cut Pell Grants by $145 billion over this same period. Democrats are fighting to fully fund Head Start, expand universal pre-K, and make college education and training more affordable through student aid and Pell Grants.

• Fifty years ago, a Democratic Congress created Medicare and Medicaid to make health care available and affordable for millions of Americans. Five years ago, Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to expand that coverage for senior citizens and to people with pre-existing conditions. Today, Republicans repeatedly vote to repeal the ACA, undermine Medicare, and deny Medicaid to low-income citizens.

• Fifty years ago, Democrats in Congress honored the contributions of hardworking law-abiding immigrants by eliminating discriminatory immigration quotas. Today, the Republican-controlled Congress continues to vilify immigrants while refusing to bring forth a bill to comprehensively reform our immigration laws and bring millions out of the shadows.

• Fifty years ago, Democrats passed the Voting Rights Act to prevent discrimination and expand access to the franchise. Today, while we continue to fight for protecting every eligible American's right to vote, Republican legislatures are passing laws to restrict access to the franchise and diluting minority votes by packing and bleaching legislative and Congressional districts.

• Fifty years ago, a Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act and the Water Quality Act to clean up our air and water. Today, we continue to fight for the future of our planet while Republicans fight and pass laws against the Environmental Protection Agency and deny the basic science of climate change.

In addressing these challenges, the principles that guided us in 1965 remain as relevant as ever. The most fundamental of these is the belief that our country is stronger when more people participate in the democratic process. The right to vote is preservative of all other rights. The diversity of opinion in our country is best reflected in our government when all eligible Americans are able to register unrestrained, vote unencumbered and have their votes counted fairly and accurately.

Sadly, over the last several years, we have seen widespread and coordinated efforts to impede access to the ballot box. Onerous and unnecessary restrictive voting requirements and proof of citizenship requirements, curtailing early voting, and removing people from the voter rolls are just a few of the devious tactics that Republicans across the country are using to disenfranchise people of color, seniors, disabled, young and low-income people.

For fifty years, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 stood as a bulwark against these insidious schemes. But when the Supreme Court disabled Section 5 of the Act in 2013, the Justice Department was no longer able to stop voter discrimination before it went into effect. In response to this unfortunate circumstance, Democrats and Republicans crafted a bipartisan bill to restore the Voting Rights Act more than a year ago, but Republican Leaders have refused to bring it up for a vote.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a book entitled, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? I believe we stand at a similar crossroads today. Our country will not prosper to its fullest until all citizens are able to reach their fullest potential. By fighting for these timeless Democratic principles -- which are core American principles -- we will embrace America's future and pursue a more perfect Union for the next 50 years and beyond.


James E. Clyburn is the House Assistant Democratic Leader and Chair of the Democratic Outreach and Engagement Task Force.