It will be 50 years in March since President Johnson announced that he would be sending a Voting Rights Act to Congress. The date of March 15, 1965, is particularly significant as the date on which he told the nation this news.
Just over a week earlier, a group of black Selma, Alabama, residents and a mixture of civil rights groups led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had tried to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery in protest of weeks of brutality from Sheriff Jim Clark and his fascistic goons. John Lewis and Hosea Williams were leading the march, which was met by Clark and state troopers. They received the first beatings of many that were delivered that day. Despite years of beatings, Lewis was for the first time hospitalized with a fractured skull.
Some say the address he gave on March 15 was the finest speech he’d ever written.
At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.
There is no Negro problem. There is no southern problem. There is no northern problem. There is only an American problem.
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.
Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes….
In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution.
We must now act in obedience to that oath.
To those who seek to avoid action by their National Government in their home communities—who want to and who seek to maintain purely local control over elections—the answer is simple. Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. Extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land. There is no constitutional issue here. 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.
You can view a video of LBJ giving this speech at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxEauRq1WxQ
In less than two weeks, thousands of voters in states that a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act was meant for may not be allowed to vote. The overwhelming majority of them will be minorities.
Ian Millhiser elucidates beautifully the problem with the SCOTUS decision to reinstate Texas’ draconian voter ID in an article on “Think Progress”; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stayed up all night to write a dissent to the decision. I won’t try to interpret for you Mr. Millhiser’s argument; it can be read here: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/10/18/3581589/the-dangerous-legal-rule-behind-the-supreme-courts-voter-id-order/
Mr. Millhiser’s main point is that “Voter ID laws are voter suppression laws.” They are Jim Crow at its worst. President Johnson himself warned that there would be people seeking to use “ingenious” means of skirting around the law. But when members of the Supreme Court itself use such means to skirt laws that are at the very foundation of Constitutional rights, something is very, very wrong.
This is not just a matter of Republicans vs. Democrats. This is a matter of racists being allowed to control the destiny of millions of Americans. This is not just Jim Crow at its worst, it is also pre-1865 in intent.
I am white. I first voted in 1974, for George McGovern. I always vote in town, state, and national elections, so I have been to the polls many, many times. I have never once been asked to show ID at a polling place. The worst thing that ever happened to me at a polling place was when a local gossip who was a poll worker yelled personal information about me across the room. That hurt me at the time, but I would rather it happen to me a million times before fellow Americans, fellow human beings, were denied their right to vote.
In the words of a beloved fictional activist, Billy Kwan, “What then must we do?”
We must protest. We must have the Voter Rights Act reinstated in full with Section Five restored. We must call and write our congressmen; start petitions online, do whatever our particular talents are to make this right.
I pray for all of those people voting in the coming days, that all will cast their vote safely. I pray that there will be poll monitors in Texas and Alabama and Mississippi. I pray that, amidst all the other pressing issues facing us today, we will rise up and demand justice. Pass this blog on; share it with your friends; form a group; be heard.
President Johnson ended his 1965 speech, “We shall overcome,” echoing the civil rights movement’s anthem. I say, we must overcome or the soul of this nation will die.