The Ballot And American Democracy: One Step Foward One Step Back?


President Johnson and Dr. King seal the deal

[Witness for Justice]

I graduated from high school just a few months before the monumental Voting Rights Act was passed on August 6, 1965. In the photographs of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing that day, we see faces of joy with tears flowing from a weary yet jubilant community of African-American sisters and brothers and their allies surrounding him.

I was a teenager then, living in a small rural town in Colorado. As someone who could not yet vote, I didn’t realize all that it would mean to millions who had been denied that very fundamental right of living in a democracy. Even though I had read about it, I didn’t fully understand all the trials that courageous leaders endured to get this epic legislation through Congress and to the President’s desk.

Just a few weeks ago, we marked as a nation the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a significant civil rights legislation that has protected voters from discrimination for a half century.

There have been other milestones in our 200-plus years of history as a democracy, but this one proved that we are a nation for the people, by the people, and of the people — all the people. Those who had been denied access to their own destiny were finally able to speak up and speak out at the voting booth about candidates and issues that matter to them and should matter to everyone who believes in justice for all.

In the midst of this anniversary celebration, we lament that millions of citizens, members of our proud democracy, are once again being denied the very right that was so valiantly fought for by generations before us. Two years ago, in 2013, the key provisions in the law which ensured that specific areas of the country with a long history of discrimination would be held accountable were stripped away by a slim majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote.

In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “things have changed dramatically” in the South in the nearly 50 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965. At the same time, Justice Roberts also admitted, “The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.”

Since this Supreme Court decision, states such as North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas have already passed new laws with the very voting restrictions feared by those who gathered around President Johnson that historic day 50 years ago. It mattered to them and it should matter to each of us who believes in democracy. We can join the efforts of the Moral Mondays Movement, originating in North Carolina, which has spread across the country.

We can join the efforts of Progressive National Baptist Convention. Members of the United Church of Christ will continue to join the efforts of religious and civic leaders who are organizing to register voters and pressure Congress to repair this damage before more are excluded from the polls in our next election.

We can and must act to ensure democracy for all the people. The handshake between President Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on August 6, 1965, was a promise that mattered to them and it must matter to us.

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