Tomorrow is the holiday marking the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which prompts these thoughts from historian Douglas Brinkley:
Why is it so hard for Americans to vote these days? It shouldn’t be. After all, in a free, democratic society, no right is more precious. The equation’s really simple: no universal voting rights, no democracy.
Nearly six decades ago, we thought we’d won this war. As part of the civil rights struggle, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exposed all the “Jim Crow” tricks designed to keep Black voters from registering and casting their ballots, including literacy tests, poll closures, and police intimidation. In early 1965, King had organized peaceful voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, only to be arrested. Then, just over a month later, on a day that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” Alabama state troopers and sheriff’s deputies beat and gassed 600 peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge while TV cameras rolled, causing a national outrage.
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In the wake of that violence, then-President Lyndon Johnson addressed a televised joint session of Congress on March 15, demanding that legislators enact expansive voting rights legislation. He concluded with words from the popular civil rights anthem: “We shall overcome.”
In short order, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, loaded with provisions ensuring that federal, state and local elections would, at last, be free, fair, and racially inclusive.
In the years to come, the Act proved to be a triumph for freedom.
Yet, in 2022, that historic achievement is being dismantled. Republican-controlled state legislatures are writing laws that impede voter registration, reduce early-voting hours, cut the number of polling places in urban areas, limit mail-in and drop-box voting, and politicize how elections are run.
Meanwhile, GOP gerrymandering of legislative districts is trying to lock in Republican control at the state level, no matter how many people vote for the other person.
Sound familiar? It should; it’s the “new Jim Crow.”
That’s why the national rallying cry this Dr. King holiday should be “Remember Selma.” Remember the sacrifices made then to guarantee voting rights for all Americans now.
And remember that other great civil rights leader, John Lewis, who was beaten by police on that Bloody Sunday, and in whose name Democrats are trying to pass the new Voting Rights Advancement Act.
As Dr. King said so powerfully in 1965, “Yes, we are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us.”
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Story produced by Aria Shavelson. Editor: Mike Levine.