This year’s presidential election has cast the importance of voting and of American citizens’ right to vote in the sharpest relief – and no more so than this month.
One reason is our contemporary drama: Donald Trump’s success in wrecking much of the “old” Republican Party; the popularity among GOP voters of the “platform” of bigotry both Trump and Ted Cruz are running on; the continuing efforts of GOP-controlled state legislatures to block Black and Hispanic voters from voting; and the Republican effort to prevent President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court from even being considered by the Senate. All these are rooted in conservatives’ “long-game” strategy to preserve White conservative control of state governments and the Congress by denying as many Americans of color as possible their right to vote.
But a second reason is because March itself has an extraordinary history in the post-World War II freedom struggle. That history underscores the point that not since the struggle for Black Americans’ voting rights in the South – which reached its dramatic climax 51 years ago in Selma, Ala. – has the fundamental question Americans have always grappled with been so clear and so stark: Is America to be a democracy or not?
Before 1965, it was a democracy for Whites only. Negro Slavery; the decimation of First Nations’ peoples; rampant discrimination against Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans and Asian immigrants characterized the horrible flip-side reality of White Americans’ incessant boasting of their commitment to “liberty and justice for all.”
The Selma Movement, building on decades of struggle across the South, set in motion a dramatic expansion of democracy that is still producing progress – and provoking fierce resistance – today.
On March 15, 1965, eight days after the infamous ‘Bloody Sunday” assault of civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, President Lyndon Baines Johnson stood before Congress to declare that within days he would submit the legislation that became the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).
LBJ opened his great speech, “The American Promise,” with these resounding words: “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” He was doing so, he proclaimed midway through the speech, “… because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”
And then, for emphasis, he repeated words that were the signature declaration of the Civil Rights Movement: “And we shall overcome.”
A decade earlier no one would likely have imagined an American president speaking those words. Instead, civil rights forces had to brace for the fundamental message of the Southern Manifesto of 1956. That document, signed by nearly all the Southern Senators and Representatives in Congress and made public on March 12, 1956, was the White South’s answer to the 1954 Supreme Court Brown decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools: That white Southerners’ “massive resistance” to equal rights for Blacks should include violence. (Among those who didn’t sign the statement was Lyndon Baines Johnson, then the Senate Majority Leader.)
It was White Southerners’ allegiance to the Southern Manifesto that made the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) necessary that year – and ever since. The law’s protections enabled Black voters to marshal their voting power and play smart politics in the only party open to them, the Democratic Party. That four-decade-long effort reached a pinnacle in President Obama’s 2012 re-election. Then, for the first time in American history, the Black voter-turnout rate surpassed that of Whites. The massive voting-booth support Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American voters (along with Jewish- and Muslim-American voters) gave the president, underwrote his victory.
The swift racist reaction that exercise in democracy provoked led the following year to the Supreme Court’s then-majority conservative bloc gutting the VRA’s most important protection, the so-called pre-clearance clause. That violation of democracy, in turn, inspired a substantial increase in the efforts of Republican-dominated state legislatures to enact voter identification laws and other measures to limit the number of Democratic-leaning voters from reaching the ballot box.
Those efforts are sure to increase between now and November, as Trump and Cruz, for their part, make it more and more clear how threatening a Republican in the White House would be to Americans of color and the interests of democracy.
That reality has intensified campaigns by a constellation of Hispanic-American, Asian-Americans and Muslim-American groups, respectively, to increase their representation on the nation’s voting lists. Those campaigns, along with similar efforts to get more blacks registered and confident of their ability to overcome states’ voter identification laws, are the bedrock of this year’s voting-rights movement.
They underscore what is righteous Americans’ most important responsibility in 2016: to vote Democratic – for democracy’s sake.
Lee A. Daniels, a former reporter for The Washington Post and the New York Times, is also a former editor of The National Urban League’s The State of Black America. He is a keynote speaker and author whose books include Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America. He is writing a book on the Obama years and the 2016 election. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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