As our country begins the process of electing our next president, and the members of the 115th Congress, the right to vote is still not settled. It is important to remember that protecting the franchise is the only way to insure that citizen’s voices are heard and that we have a say in electing our representatives.
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Democrat, signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Handing the Pen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The new law of the land:
SEC. 2. No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.
President Johnson introduced his outline for a voting rights act to Congress on March 15, 1965 following violence in Selma Alabama as protesters marched for voting rights.
March 1965 – Selma
I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of Democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.
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, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man-a man of God-was killed.
He reminded us of our founding documents and their words:
This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose.
The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: “All men are created equal.” “Government by consent of the governed.” “Give me liberty or give me death.” And those are not just clever words, and those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty risking their lives. Those words are promised to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man’s possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom. He shall choose his leaders, educate his children, provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.
To apply any other test, to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race or his religion or the place of his birth is not only to do injustice, it is to deny Americans and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom. Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish it must be rooted in democracy. This most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country in large measure is the history of expansion of the right to all of our people.
President Johnson was known as a blunt man. And nothing can be blunter than this:
Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument: 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 insure that right.
To ensure that right, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by a Democratic President.
This is a Big Huge Deal
President Johnson speaking on August 6, 1965 at the signing:
Stirring words to describe a singular moment in history:
Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield. Yet to seize the meaning of this day, we must recall darker times.
Three and a half centuries ago the first Negroes arrived at Jamestown. They did not arrive in brave ships in search of a home for freedom. They did not mingle fear and joy, in expectation that in this New World anything would be possible to a man strong enough to reach for it.
They came in darkness and they came in chains.
And today we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds. Today the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend.
There were those who said this is an old injustice, and there is no need to hurry. But 95 years have passed since the 15th amendment gave all Negroes the right to vote.
And the time for waiting is gone.
There were those who said smaller and more gradual measures should be tried. But they had been tried. For years and years they had been tried, and tried, and tried, and they had failed, and failed, and failed.
And the time for failure is gone.
There were those who said that this is a many-sided and very complex problem. But however viewed, the denial of the right to vote is still a deadly wrong.
And the time for injustice has gone.
Thus, this is a victory for the freedom of the American Negro. But it is also a victory for the freedom of the American Nation. And every family across this great, entire, searching land will live stronger in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation, and will be prouder to be American because of the act that you have passed that I will sign today.
In 2012, the Obama Justice Department sued to stop voter id laws and voter purging tactics in states controlled by Republicans:
As conservatives threaten the voting rights of millions of Americans with new voter ID laws, Attorney General Eric Holder shot back on Tuesday, calling the laws an unconstitutional “poll tax.”
During a speech to the national NAACP Convention, Holder denounced the fact that a number of states are beginning to require voters to present particular forms of photo identification or be turned away from the polls. “Under proposed voter ID laws, many would struggle to pay for IDs needed to vote. We call this a poll tax,” Holder declared to loud applause.
In June, 2013, the conservative majority on the Roberts Court declared that there is no more institutional racism and declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the pre-clearance provision, to be unconstitutional.
Attorney General Eric Holder:
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder – and invalidated an essential part of the Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone of American civil rights law.
Like many others across the country, I am deeply disappointed with the Court’s decision in this matter. This decision represents a serious setback for voting rights – and has the potential to negatively affect millions of Americans across the country. […]
The Department of Justice will continue to carefully monitor jurisdictions around the country for voting changes that may hamper voting rights. Let me be very clear: we will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action – using every legal tool that remains available to us – against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise.
Attorney General Holder did not give up and we should not give up. Here is the most important part of his speech:
We know from many decades of long, hard struggle that the best way to defend a right is to go out and exercise it. […] it is incumbent on all American citizens to stand up for their rights by registering to vote, going to the ballot box, exercising that most fundamental of rights, and voting for their preferred candidates of any party.
Contact your representatives in Congress and demand that they protect the right to vote. And if they don’t, exercise your right to vote and replace them with people who will protect “this most basic human right”.
(A version of this first appeared as part of a series “Why I Vote For Democrats” published during the 2012 election year)
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