On July 27, our People For founder Norman Lear celebrated his 99th birthday. And he made it clear what was on his mind on that day in a moving op-ed in The Washington Post: our country’s voting rights emergency.
“I woke up today at the start of my 100th year as a citizen of this beautiful, bewildering country,” he begins, going on to say that he is “baffled and disturbed that 21st-century Americans must still struggle to protect their right to vote.” Norman writes about serving in World War II alongside the famed Tuskegee airmen, Black pilots who fought fascism in Europe only to return to racism at home. “Their heroism did not shield them from the indignities and violence of Jim Crow,” he writes. “I can only imagine the depth of the betrayal the airmen must have felt, but it did not prevent many of them from accomplishing great things.”
After we defeated fascism overseas, it took 20 more years to pass the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act at home. Now, headlines seem drawn from the past: States target Black voters with voter-suppression bills. Federal voting-rights laws blocked in the Senate by a filibuster.
Racial and religious nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are seemingly on the rise everywhere. It is deeply discouraging to this member of what has been called “the Greatest Generation.”
As Norman notes, that Greatest Generation included early civil rights heroes such as Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Thurgood Marshall. The years that followed brought “[the late Congresswoman Barbara] Jordan, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, and millions of not-famous people who risked everything to claim the right to vote.”
That voting rights should be at risk again today is nearly unfathomable. In Norman’s words:
To legislators getting between people and the ballot box, and to senators who are standing in the dishonorable tradition of those who filibustered civil rights legislation, I say this: You may pass some unjust laws. You may win elections by preventing or discouraging people from voting.
But you will not in the end defeat the democratic spirit, the spirit that animated the Tuskegee airmen to whom I owe my life, the spirit that powers millions of Americans who give of themselves to defend voting rights, protect our environment, preserve peaceful pluralism, defeat discrimination, and expand educational and economic opportunity.
We are honored to have this visionary man as an inspiration as we continue to fight for federal voting rights protections including the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Thank you, Norman, and happy 99th birthday.