50 Years Later, Let’s Renew the Voting Rights Act

On March 15, 1965, just eight days after the Bloody Sunday massacre in Selma, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress to press for passage of the Voting Rights Bill. Invoking the “cries of pain” of the peaceful protestors as they were “brutally assaulted,” LBJ urged lawmakers to pass the bill quickly. “Their cause must be our cause too,” he told Congress, because “it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”From a private home in Selma, Alabama, civil rights leader John Lewis watched the President’s speech on a black-and-white TV with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I looked at Dr. King and tears came down his face,” Lewis recalled. “And we all cried a little to have the President of the United States say, ‘We shall overcome.’ And Dr. King said, ‘We will march from Selma to Montgomery. The Voting Rights Act will be passed.’“

Fifty years ago today, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. But as I look back at those days, it’s not out of nostalgia alone — it’s out of need, because the Voting Rights Act is imperiled today. We need to remember what a hard-fought victory it represents — and how the mere promise of equality brought tears to Dr. King’s eyes.

Today, President Obama will stand beside Congressman John Lewis and call for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act. In the wake of a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key part of the law that had required nine Southern states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing their voting laws, President Obama will challenge Congress to renew the promise of the Voting Rights Act as a bulwark against states that would make it harder for American citizens to make their voice heard in our elections.

We stand with the President and other defenders of equality in urging protection of the Voting Rights Act. Let’s be clear: The recent laws passed in many states to restrict voting rights are not about reducing “voter fraud.” They are meant simply to erect barriers to voting for people of color.

At the Voter Participation Center, our mission is to encourage and help the New American Majority — people of color, unmarried women, and Millennials — to register and to vote. We need to make it easier, not harder, for these historically under-represented Americans to participate in our democracy. Why? As of 2012, 27 percent of African-Americans and 41 percent of Latinos who were eligible to cast a ballot weren’t even registered to vote. And if the ongoing efforts in some states to disenfranchise them are allowed to continue unimpeded, our government will continue to grow less and less representative of the people.

As a New York Times editorial recently concluded, the threats against voting rights are no less real than they were 50 years ago, even if they’re more subtle; now that the VRA has been weakened, some state officials are committed to bringing back restrictions on voting that target minorities. “Today there are no poll taxes or literacy tests. Instead, there are strict and unnecessary voter-identification requirements, or cutbacks to early voting and same-day registration — all of which are known to disproportionately burden black voters.”

As we face down this modern-day campaign against voting rights, we must resolve to be as brave and proud as Dr. King, Congressman Lewis, and all the other men and women who marched, stood, bled, and in some cases gave the last full measure of devotion for their dream of an America in which all citizens could have a voice in our democracy and live out the nation’s promise.

Today, on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we must continue to overcome our nation’s crippling legacy of injustice. Let’s remember this great day by renewing the Voting Rights Act.