People For the American Way

The Voting Rights Act: Yesterday and Today

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Act, which passed then and has passed since with strong bipartisan support, provided necessary protections from discriminatory voting practices by Southern states aimed at African Americans. That was yesterday. Today's VRA is barely recognizable.

Yesterday, protection was needed against poll taxes (barred in federal elections with the ratification of the 24th Amendment), literacy taxes, and things like “white primaries” in Texas. Today protection is needed against voter identification laws, purging of voting rolls, the disenfranchisement of voting rights for formerly incarcerated persons, big money in politics, and redistricting.

Yesterday, Jim Crow was to have retired in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also signed by President Johnson. Today Jim Crow is “James Crow, PhD,” – CEO of the prison industrial complex, instigator of the war on women and card carrying, dues paying member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), determined to re-define democracy in this country.

Yesterday, 50 years ago on March 7, 1965, courageous women and men were a part of a nonviolent march attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Five months later the Voting Rights Act was signed. 

Today, 50 years later I stand here in Dallas with Ambassador Andrew Young, Martin Luther King, III, officers, clergy, laity, and Dr. James Perkins, President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. at its 54th annual conference, the convention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with great clarity and without doubt that the Voting Rights Act of yesterday is still needed in its fullness today!  

Yesterday, on November 22, 1963, here in Dallas at the Dealey Plaza, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and then Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as this country’s 36th president. Blood and tears of Kennedy and the nonviolent marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge were mingled at the raising of a pen to try to finish what Kennedy started – the righting of a wrong. Today, blood and tears of the Emmanuel Nine were mingled in the lowering of the confederate flag on the grounds of the South Carolina state capital.

Yesterday, under the Johnson administration, his “Great Society” vision for America, we got Medicare and Medicaid (also 50 this month), a ban on race discrimination in public facilities, the War on Poverty, and the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. Today, we still must march for Medicaid expansion, an end to racial profiling and gender and sexual identity discrimination, for comprehensive immigration reform. And 50 years later we still must fight for the protection of our right to vote.

We are here in Texas on this historic day, the same state that immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder on August 22, 2013, passed one of the country’s most oppressive, restrictive voter identification laws (SB14) at the time and was charged with violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. 

We are here knowing from the yesterdays it is not a matter of “if” someone will test the voting laws of the land. Today it’s just a matter of “when.” Until we get to that place of protection, of security where rights will not, can no longer be denied, “let us march on,” educate, motivate, advocate, register and yes vote “till victory is won.”