This time next year, be prepared for rousing speeches, earnest commemorations and moving celebrations that mark the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing the Voting Rights Act. But even now, it’s worth having a national come-to-Jesus moment about the state of voting rights and democracy, especially for black folks, in advance of the coming midterm elections.
The Supreme Court’s disastrous and mean-spirited Shelby v. Holder decision last year took much of the VRA’s enforcement power away, unleashing a predictable wave of voter suppression in states such as Florida, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania.
Voter-ID laws proposed or passed in these states represent a peculiar kind of 21st-century poll tax, expressly designed to prevent African Americans from exercising fundamental democratic rights. With national polls predicting a Democratic lock on the White House, buoyed by Obama-coalition multiracial and ethnic voters, the Republican response has been to try denying less-privileged Americans the right to vote.
The tragedy in all of this is that the denial of the vote betrays the enormous sacrifices made to ensure citizenship for all. Securing voting rights, in many ways, represented the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement’s heroic period. Between the Brown desegregation case in 1954 and the VRA’s passage 11 years later, activists organized demonstrations and endured beatings, jail and threats of violence, working to inspire—and in some cases, arm-twist—politicians to make racial equality a matter of fact in everyday life.
But the vote, for too many of us, remained elusive until 1965. Southern Dixiecrats (who would eventually morph into conservative Republicans), knew and feared the potential impact of the black vote. Beyond the prisonlike atmosphere of the Jim Crow South and North lay an undiscovered country where African Americans could transform their collective destinies, along with that of the entire country, if given the opportunity.
The moment came in Selma, Ala., where Martin Luther King Jr. helped to lead a massive voting-rights campaign—one that was fought with brutal violence—and that culminated in a demonstration that moved President Johnson to declare voting rights a national priority that would benefit the “destiny of democracy.”
And the future of American democracy remains in doubt so long as millions of Americans are denied the right to participate in the most basic aspect of citizenship.
Debating voting rights almost 50 years after the VRA’s passage is one of the saddest aspects of contemporary race relations. It’s also one of the strangest. For even as the nation celebrates victories long thought to have been won, a new generation discovers that the opposite is true.
And they must fight.
This year, 2014, should inspire activists to support a new voting-rights movement, one that restores the enforcement policies stripped by the Supreme Court and that educates all Americans about the importance of voting for our democracy. Grassroots organizing, social media and political education can help to galvanize a voter-justice-and-awareness movement capable of guaranteeing all Americans, especially people of color, the right to vote.
At a moment in history when international events from Ukraine to the Middle East dominate the news, it’s important to remind ourselves that the democratic principles we profess to support globally should start at home immediately.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.