Fifty-five-years-ago today President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into effect. As we consider the state of the world today a lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t.
The Voting Rights Act was possibly the greatest piece of civil rights legislation to have passed through Congress at the time, and it was overwhelmingly approved by both the House and the Senate. The legislation outlawed discriminatory voting practices like literacy tests, it prohibited denying someone the right to vote because of their race, finally securing Black women the right to vote (yes, you read that correctly, Black women couldn’t vote until 1965!), it afforded U.S. citizens that didn’t speak English the right to vote, and it allowed the attorney general to challenge poll taxes.
The legislation came about because many Black men, particularly in the south, were too often denied their right to vote. In March of 1965, civil rights activists organized the Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights. During the march several people were badly beaten by police officers in Alabama, Johnson used this moment to call on Congress to create the Voting Rights Act.
This was 55-years-ago, but 2020 doesn’t seem all that different from 1965 in many ways. Police violence against Black people, men in particular, has persisted and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officer at the end of May was the tipping point for many. People, many for the first time, put out anti-racist statements, and took to the streets calling for change. They called on lawmakers to defund the police and invest in our communities. Here in Michigan our governor recently declared racism a public health crisis. The White House did nothing.
How did we get back here? Did we ever really leave? The person sitting in the White House (it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth to call him president, but I think you know who I’m talking about) has made it OK to be racist in public again. (Not that it was OK when it was hidden.) He’s encouraged acts of racism and violence. He’s a racist.
I’m not saying that Johnson was our country’s best president, but he had leadership skills. And he took steps to smother the fires that were erupting across the country rather than fan the flames.
In Michigan, the people approved new voting laws via Prop 3 in 2018. Affording us same day voter registration and no reason absentee voting. Laws, in the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, aimed at making voting accessible for historically disenfranchised voters like Black and brown people, new citizens, returning citizens and people with disabilities. We still have work to do to ensure that people know about their new rights and that they feel confident exercising them.
This November when we head to the polls, we must consider that it wasn’t that long ago that many Americans didn’t have the right to vote. That many people still feel fearful casting their ballots because of past injustices. We have the opportunity this November to chart a path forward for our country that chooses unity and justice over strife and racism. So please, exercise your right and your responsibility to vote. Our communities are depending on you.