Blog of Rights

"One Man, One Vote": Nelson Mandela on Voting Rights

By Julie Ebenstein, Staff Attorney, Voting Rights Project, ACLU at 2:59pm

Last week, the world lost a great man, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Madiba's uncompromising commitment to self-determination was a first principle of his struggle against apartheid and toward racial equality. In his first television interview in 1961, Madiba talked about the cornerstone of a democratic and free society: one-person one-vote. "The Africans require, want, the franchise on the basis of one man one vote. They want political independence." he said.

The right to vote is widely recognized in the U.S. as a right that is "preservative of all rights." Our continued vigilance over the democratic process in the U.S. is no less relevant to the modern day struggle for equality. Without equality at the polls, there is no self-governance.

In April 1964, from the dock at the Rivonia trial, Madiba ended his statement with these now-famous words: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

In July of 1964, as Madiba was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, the U.S. had only just passed the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting segregation and discrimination on the grounds of race. It was not until the following year that the U.S. passed the Voting Rights Act, prohibiting literacy tests and other discriminatory voting practices and strengthening the ongoing fight to banish discrimination from voting.

For the last 50 years, the Voting Rights Act has protected racial and language minorities from states' attempts to dilute minority voting power or create barriers to voting based on race. In that time, the U.S. has made substantial strides in banishing discrimination from elections.

But there is still a long way to go. Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a key section of the Voting Rights Act. In the wake of that decision, we have seen shameless voter suppression tactics and states' unprecedented efforts to disenfranchise voters by preventing them from registering, voting, or having their vote counted.

It is impossible to capture in a few words Madiba's tremendous contribution in the worldwide fight for freedom, equality and universal recognition of human rights. We can honor Madiba's life by continuing to fight for these principles and protecting the right to vote.

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