As America celebrates the 50 th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), millions of eyes are on the hard-fought battle that was finally won in 1965.
Forums, documentaries, and movies, such as “Selma”, are permeating the airwaves with the historic events that led to the Congressional passage of the VRA, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965. But, even as the celebration of the victory has begun, there are those whose eyes remain focused on making sure the right to vote remains fluid across the country.
“Is it time to celebrate Selma, Alabama – and the triumph of the Voting Rights Act? Or is it time to mourn Shelby, Alabama – and the radical backlash against voting rights?”
Those are the questions raised by the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. as he declares the need for America to understand that “the struggle for equal rights must go on.”
By mourning Shelby, Alabama, Rev. Jackson is referring to the legal case, Shelby v. Holder. In that case, the U. S. Supreme Court, two years ago, struck down a key mandate of the VRA. The court did away with the clause that required a dozen states and municipalities with histories of gross discrimination to seek approval or “preclearance” from the federal government before making any voting changes.
But, why is the right to vote so central and sacred to civil rights in America? Rev. Jackson and several voices of those who remain committed to “the struggle” seek to answer that question. Mainly, they say, voting is the force for change.
Barbara Arnwine, executive director/CEO of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, points to major issues across the U. S. that can be influenced by voters.
“African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of Whites; eight times more African-American children attend high poverty schools than do White children; poverty rates for African-American and Hispanic families triple that of White families; and the unemployment rates for minorities remain in or bordering on double digits,” Arnwine points out, while the unemployment rate for Whites remains consistently below the national average, currently at about 5.7 percent.
Those who fought for the right to vote in the 1960s include now U. S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), then one of the student leaders on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. That’s when Alabama state troopers brutally beat him and others as they attempted to cross the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge in a march for voting rights. Only days later President Johnson moved to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Congressman Lewis remains adamant about the need to continue protecting the Voting Rights Act and marching to the polls in order to use that sacred right for which he and many others suffered.
“The right to vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy,” Lewis wrote in a commentary published in the Washington Post. “I risked my life defending that right. Some died in the struggle. If we are ever to actualize the true meaning of equality, effective measures such as the Voting Rights Act are still a necessary requirement of democracy.”
- Photo Caption: The Edmund Pettus Bridge where the "Bloody Sunday" March for Voting Rights took place March 7, 1965.
- Photo Credit: National Park Service, U. S. Department of Interior (public domain)