People For the American Way

VRA on the Brink a Half Century after Freedom Summer

On June 21, 1964, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Mississippi while participating in the Freedom Summer campaign to register African Americans to vote.

A year later, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

Today, their legacy lives on in the fight to ensure that the VRA survives another half century.

The Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted Section 5 of the VRA, which requires certain covered states and subjurisdictions to submit any changes in voting and election laws to the Department of Justice (DOJ) or a federal court for approval before they can go into effect. While the Court did not strike down Section 5 itself, it said that Congress’s previous determination, through the Section 4 coverage formula, as to where Section 5 applied was unconstitutional.

It could not be clearer that the lack of VRA preclearance has left democracy diminished. And with the first presidential election since Shelby County looming large, that point is coming into even sharper focus. Yet Congress has failed to do anything but let the Voting Rights Advancement Act languish, legislation that would replace what the VRA lost and make additional, critical updates.

Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman did not give their lives 52 years ago today so that Congress could allow the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the voting protections it achieved to continue to unravel. We owe it to them and the countless others who put everything on the line in defense of voting rights to make sure – once and for all – that all eligible citizens can register to vote and cast a ballot that counts.

Failing to defend the right to vote is simply not an option.

It wasn't then. It isn't now.