By LaKeshia N. Myers
Fifty-six years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, which ended the deleterious practices of poll taxes, literacy tests, questionnaires and violence used to bar African Americans from the ballot box. In many southern states, egregious exercises in voter intimidation occurred; in some instances, the name, address and employer of African Americans would be published in the newspaper to alert Klan members when Blacks attempted to register to vote. In many rural areas, elections would be held on the land of white plantation owners so they could instruct their employees who to vote for.
After years of lobbying federal officials for intervention in the south, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) staged a march from Selma, Alabama, to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery to advocate for voting rights. As they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the protesters were met by Alabama state troopers who charged the crowd with Billy clubs, tear gas and attack dogs. The event became known as “Bloody Sunday.” After federalizing the Alabama National Guard, protesters were finally able to complete their march to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, The Voting Rights Act was a federal intervention, necessary to disarm one of the last vestiges of Jim Crow in America. A measure that “made good” on the American promise of suffrage first granted to African American men during Reconstruction.
Voting is one of the most fundamental rights granted to Americans, yet it is evident that history is repeating itself. We are dealing with Jim Crow 2.0 – restricting the voting rights of young adults, people of color and the poor has again grown in popularity. In statehouses across the country, measures to restrict voting and deter non-partisan advocacy have been introduced and or passed. In the state of Texas, legislation is aimed at limiting absentee voting and the number of ballot drop boxes. In Georgia, it would be illegal for a person to give voters waiting in line water. And Republicans in the Wisconsin assembly passed measures aimed at restricting absentee voting.
Last week I joined state legislators and fellow supporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to urge the United States Senate to delay its summer recess until they pass the For the People Act. In the spirit of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the For the People Act is an elections and ethics bill that will expand and protect voting rights. If enacted, it will protect voters against the wave of restrictive voting bills that continue to be proposed in numerous states, including Wisconsin.
The act incorporates key measures that are urgently needed, including automatic voter registration and other steps to modernize our elections; a national guarantee of free and fair elections without voter suppression, coupled with a commitment to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act; critical campaign finance reforms; an end to partisan gerrymandering; and a much-needed overhaul of federal ethics rules. These changes counter every voter suppression bill currently pending in the states.
I honor those who fought, bled, and died for my right to vote. Many whose names and faces are lost to history; their work led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I am reenergized and committed to carrying the mantel forward for justice and equity for all people.