“No nation can long continue to flourish or to find its way to a better society while it allows any one of its citizens…to be denied the right to participate in the most fundamental of all privileges of democracy – the right to vote.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On Monday, January 15th, America will celebrate what would have been the 83rd birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The day will be marked from coast-to-coast with parades, speeches, and pilgrimages to the new King Memorial on the National Mall. But in the midst of this outpouring of praise, there is a sinister movement afoot to undo one of Dr. King’s hardest fought victories – the removal of discriminatory barriers to voting and the passage of the Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.
In Dr. King’s day, billy clubs, cattle prods and guns kept African Americans away from the polls. Today, new voter restriction laws on the books or in the works in at least 34 states could deny the right to vote to more than 5 million Americans this year. These laws include new photo ID requirements, elimination of early voting, bans on voting by out-of-state college students, and rollbacks of voting rights for ex-felons who have paid their debts to society. Florida has even eliminated voting on the Sunday before Election Day which has traditionally been a day when African American churches organized “souls to the polls” drives for their congregations.
The mostly conservative proponents of these new laws claim they are meant to prevent widespread fraud – the casting of ballots by people who are not legally eligible to vote. But both the Bush and Obama Justice Departments have looked and not found significant voter fraud in American elections. So let’s be clear – the real reason behind this spate of new laws is to suppress the votes of people likely to support progressive candidates and issues – African Americans, Latinos, young people, the elderly and people with disabilities. This is unconscionable. It is un-American. And it dishonors the sacrifices of generations of Americans who have fought and died to extend the right to vote to every citizen.
Fortunately, a growing number of Americans are fighting back. On December 10th, the National Urban League joined the NAACP and a coalition of civil rights groups at a “Stand for Freedom” march and rally at the United Nations to protest this blatant attack on voting rights. Attorney General Eric Holder has also expressed concern about the legality of some of these new laws. Recently, the Justice Department struck down a voter ID law in South Carolina and Holder promises to continue to monitor these attempts and stop them when they violate the law. But beating back these efforts will require citizen vigilance and action.
In a recent speech at the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, Holder urged Americans to “Speak out. Raise awareness about what’s at stake. Call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success and… urge policymakers at every level to reevaluate our election systems - and to reform them in ways that encourage, not limit, participation.”
We agree. We must not let the hard-won voting rights secured by Dr. King, John Lewis, LBJ and so many others slip away.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.