Voting Rights—what is all the commotion about? For African Americans it means everything, and for our nation it means the very foundation of our republic. This past Monday, January 17, groups led by the family of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched in support of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, while many others wrote and spoke up in support of the act’s passage. After months of the legislation sitting in the U.S. Senate, it was blocked.
This came after long-fought battles for voting rights that neither began nor ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, fifty-seven years ago. Since the historic passage of the act, amendments and renewals have been made in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006 as voting discrimination has continued to plague our nation. Civic leader and city government appointee John W. Mack (1937 – 2018) warned in his 2013 interview: “I hope… we don’t have to refight the same old battles over and over again… the recent Supreme Court decision [Shelby County v. Holder, 2013] … gutting important parts or sections of the Voting Rights Act.” In honor of his father’s legacy, Martin Luther King, III implored: “We are calling on them… to restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure… [We] will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream for a more equal and just America.”
It was the stately older sister of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Christine King Farris, who in her interview recalled how voter registration was something that their father, “Daddy King,” emphasized to his parishioners: “I remember Dad [Martin Luther King, Sr.] organizing members in the church and taking them down to the courthouse to register to vote. And he was very active… in the community [Atlanta, Georgia] in that way. And… my brothers [Martin and Alfred King] … saw this.”
This focus on voting rights and registration was the hallmark of the modern-day civil rights movement as outlined by late U.S. Congressman John Lewis (1940 – 2020): “It was during the summer of the Freedom Rides… And Robert Kennedy started negotiating and meeting with people… suggesting that there should be a cooling off period. And that it would be more meaningful if people would turn their attention to voter registration. And there was this great debate within SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], within the [Civil Rights] Movement about whether we should go and get involved in voter registration or whether we should continue a campaign of nonviolent direct action… The decision was… we must do both… And it was the [U.S. President John F.] Kennedy administration convincing several… New York-based foundations to set up something called the Voter Education Project… where people would be able to give and donate tax deductible dollars and these dollars would be used for non-partisan… efforts to gain the right to vote. And it was hard—it was difficult. It was supposed to be steady and researched, and people discovered early… it was gonna be almost impossible for black folks in the eleven states of the old Confederacy from Virginia to Texas to get registered. That effort laid the foundation—created the climate… for the movement for the right to vote, that led to the passage of the Voters Rights Act [of 1965].”
Minister and civil rights leader Reverend Walter Fauntroy further explained: “Because of the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] … the ’70s [1970s] ushered in a… decade—where we began to recover by meaningful participation in the political area. In 1965, there were only six black mayors in the country. But after two million new… black voters, we had 60 black mayors. We had only 600 black elected officials in 1965. By 1972, when we were doing the Congressional Black Caucus, we had over 2000 black elected officials. And so our frustration was beginning to express itself in meaningful political action and electoral politics augmented by a battery of programs.” Theologian James H. Cone (1938 – 2018) added: “When the voting rights bill [Voting Rights Act of 1965] was signed… President [Lyndon B.] Johnson and… Martin [Luther] King [Jr.] … thought that this was really the beginning of seeing full equality in this society. But what’s happened six days later [the Watts Riots] and it shocked King… he was so shocked and went to Watts [Los Angeles, California] … And there King realized that the achievements that he had made in the South with the civil rights bill [Civil Rights Act of 1964] and the Voting Rights Act [of 1965], were achievements that blacks in the North or in the West and in New York and California, they already had ’em… That’s when King realized that the problem with racism was much deeper.”
Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery (1921 – 2020), co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, shared: “There were two black women in Alabama who were indicted for voter fraud, Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder… One was a schoolteacher, one was a domestic worker. Their only crime was registering black voters and teaching them how to [submit]absentee ballots… In the meantime, the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] … Section 5, particularly, [was] expiring in ’82 . And so we tied the two together because what Maggie and Julia were doing was securing voting rights.” ACLU Washington Legislative Office Director Laura Murphy reflected on the continued efforts to secure voting rights in the 1980s when they were being attacked under the Reagan Administration: “[President Ronald] Reagan got elected… And [Rev.] Jerry Falwelland everybody else came in, and the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] was their favorite target. And one of the issues that I had to work on was the extension of the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] … the [U.S.] Senate had turned Republican. And[U.S. Senator Robert] Bob Dole was the majority leader. And that was the first time it happened in years. And so there was a whole new regime of power… So… we formed a coalition with the [NAACP] Legal Defense Fund and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, and all these other groups… And we did it… what it showed me was that liberal Democrats are not always liberal. They don’t always have the courage of their convictions, and you can work with Republicans to get certain things done… we could not have gotten the extension passed without Bob Dole’s help… And I’ve got… [U.S. President] George [H.W.] Bush, the elder’s, signature [on the 1992 extension of Section 203(c) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965].”
The extension of our nation’s voting rights laws was under debate again in 2006— the last time the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was extended or amended—under another Republican president, George W. Bush. As noted by Joseph Henry Beasley, former Southern Regional Director of the National Rainbow/PUSH Coalition: “Republicans… have passed some very egregious laws here in the last General Assembly [in Georgia] … we have seventeen different forms of I.D. that we could use to vote, and they reduced it down to five, and… for example, and two of them is a passport… and a military I.D. And only a few people like myself… get those credentials… so we’re fighting tooth and nail. Reverend [Jesse L.] Jackson has called August 6th as the date that we’re going to really close down Atlanta… Section Two and Section Five is going to expire of the Voting Rights Act [of 1965]. When [President] George [W.] Bush… was approached by the [Congressional] Black Caucus, and Jesse Jackson, Jr. really had put the question to him. ‘Well, Mr. President, what are you going to do about the Voting Rights Act?’ And he’s… just said, ‘I don’t even know anything about it.’ And quite frankly he didn’t know… But he said, ‘When it gets to my desk, I’ll look at it, and… I’ll make a decision at that time.’”
Well, here we are now with a myriad of familiar problems, and an increasingly divided nation that shows no signs of coming together to do the right thing. We must pay attention to these cautionary words spoken by the legendary Reverend Dr. Otis Moss, Jr. in 2005: “The greatest threat that we face in the twenty-first century is the possibility of… the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] being diluted to the extent that the right to vote can again be so abridged that it will become acceptable once more to deny people their citizenship by way of the right to vote… that is a clear and present danger.”