On the shoulders of my grandfather Dilmus Agnew, my mother watched Martin Luther King, Jr. give his renowned “I Have a Dream” speech in our nation’s capital in 1963. “We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote,” exclaimed Dr. King, as my mother watched on. “No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Because of the work of Dr. King and other civil rights advocates, two years later the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ushered in a new era for the rights of people of color. The road to passing the VRA was not an easy one. But it was the product of the blood, sweat, and tears of many fighting for basic civil rights, culminating in the events of March 7, 1965. The painful sting of tear gas and the piercing sounds of guns from Alabama State troopers turned a peaceful protest in Selma organized by Dr. King into what we know today as Bloody Sunday.
The actions of the troopers were televised, and Americans all across the nation watched the brutal unprovoked attacks on African-Americans seeking dignity and equality, including the right to vote. One civil rights activist and graduate of Tuskegee Institute, the late Amelia Boynton Robinson, recalled:
“As I stepped aside from the trooper’s club, I felt a blow on my arm that could have injured me permanently had it been on my head. Another blow by a trooper as I was gasping for breath knocked me to the ground and there I lay unconscious.”
A week after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon B. Johnson charged Congress to enact a comprehensive voting rights legislation that guarantees the right to vote for every American. He said:
“Open your polling places to all your people. Allow men and women to register and vote whatever the color of their skin. … What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of America life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negros, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”
Just five months after “Bloody Sunday,” the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law on August 6 in the presence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other prominent civil rights activists. The VRA outlawed literacy tests, poll taxes, and other discriminatory barriers that were used to keep African-Americans from voting. In addition, it provided checks and balances on state policies in places with a history of discrimination.
President Johnson’s claim that voting rights are an American issue was exemplified through the bipartisan support the act received. There has been widespread bipartisan support of the VRA since its inception to its subsequent reauthorizations. Most recently in 2006, Congress reauthorized, nearly unanimously, the act for another 25 years.
But the question is, now, 52 years later, has the “dream” been fulfilled? Has justice rolled down like waters and righteousness like a stream as Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped it would?
We have seen great progress over the past half-decade thanks to the VRA. By the end of 1965, 250,000 new African-American citizens were registered to vote. The number of African-Americans holding elected offices has grown nationwide. Representation in the House and Senate increased from five legislators before the VRA was passed to 50 in 2017.
Progress, however, has been interrupted.
In 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder removed the heart of the Voting Rights Act. In a five to four decision, the court struck down the key provision of the law that required states with a history of voter discrimination to preclear changes to their voting laws and practices with the Department of Justice to ensure their fairness. The majority made this decision even as they acknowledged that voter suppression and discrimination still occur.
As a result, the flood gates opened with17 states introducing restrictive laws affecting over 110 million people and their right to vote. The new laws range from Texas’ voter ID laws that prohibit students to use their school identification to vote while accepting gun licenses to North Carolina’s “monster voter suppression” bill that a federal appeals court found to be “targeting African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the most successful civil rights laws in our nation’s history. We must honor and never forget those that fought inside and outside the court room, and even paid with their lives to ensure that all people have the right to vote. That’s why we have to keep up the fight to end voter suppression laws and efforts.
Congress must pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act to fully restore the Voting Rights Act. The Advancement Act would restore and update the requirements for states with a history of discrimination to get pre-approval before voting changes take effect, combatting the modern forms of voter suppression we see today.
The responsibility is now ours to honor the trailblazers of the past through action that will ensure an even brighter future for all Americans.