Fifty years ago, on Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson uttered these words as he signed into law the Voting Rights Act. The president said it wasn’t just a political gesture that moved him to this action, it was a matter of morality.
“This act flows from a clear and simple wrong,” he said. “Its only purpose is to right that wrong. Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny. … It is not just a question of guilt, although there is that. It is that men cannot live with a lie and not be stained by it.”
He went on to say that the measure was “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.” The law was specifically designed to undo the stricture of Jim Crow Laws—the grandfather clause, literacy tests and poll taxes—all of which had deliberately blocked African-Americans from exercising their constitutional voting rights.
A half century later, after civil rights activists and Black Americans believed that voter suppression was a thing of the past, the invidious menace of yesteryear looms again, having refined the rough edges of restriction that often had to rely on terrorist acts of nightriders and the Ku Klux Klan.
The claim in the past that denied African-Americans the vote has taken on more subtle and sophisticated forms. Some states have invoked ID as a requirement to vote. We have witnessed the elimination of early and weekend voting and same-day registration. These barriers were exacerbated in 2013, when the Supreme Court filleted the Voting Rights Act, removing the relevance of Section 5 and the law that required states and districts that formally discriminated against voters to get approval from the Justice Department or the courts before making any changes that might affect minority voters. Below is a description of Section 5 of the law:
“SEC. 5. Whenever a State or political subdivision with respect to which the prohibitions set forth in section 4(a) are in effect shall enact or seek to administer any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force or effect on November 1, 1964, such State or subdivision may institute an action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for a declaratory judgment that such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color, and unless and until the court enters such judgment no person shall be denied the right to vote for failure to comply with such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure: Provided,
“That such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure may be enforced without such proceeding if the qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure has been submitted by the chief legal officer or other appropriate official of such State or subdivision to the Attorney General and the Attorney General has not interposed an objection within sixty days after such submission, except that neither the Attorney General’s failure to object nor a declaratory judgment entered under this section shall bar a subsequent action to enjoin enforcement of such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure. Any action under this section shall be heard and determined by a court of three judges in accordance with the provisions of section 2284 of title 28 of the United States Code and any appeal shall lie to the Supreme Court.”
Several states did not have to await the court’s decision and since 2010 had already put into effect laws restricting voting access. Opponents of the Voting Rights Act, which has been re-authorized four times, charge that such a provision is no longer necessary because, for the most part, they insist, the law has been successful. To a degree they are right, if you consider the large number of Black Americans who can now register and vote as well as an appreciable increase in Black elected officials. But they are wrong to suggest that the law is no longer necessary, and we now have to deal with another tactic from the right with the accusation of voter fraud. This assertion continues, though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and this is clearly a last-ditch allegation, along with gerrymandering, to minimize a vote that, in most places, would enhance Democratic candidates.
We applaud those who have not been hoodwinked by such devious means, who remain ever vigilant and realize that, more than ever, we have to guard against the backlash, the suppression of our constitutional rights, no matter where they are being challenged.
We commend and wholeheartedly endorse the fight the Rev. William Barber and the NAACP and other rights groups are waging in North Carolina to undo laws imposed there by a Republican-dominated state legislature. And if the new law is retained in North Carolina, it will be among more than a dozen other states that will conduct a presidential election in 2016 under new laws and guidelines.
A clear and simple wrong is still not right, and in many ways it has become even more complicated and difficult to see and upend. But we stand on guard with the millions in America who have pledged their allegiance to the Voting Rights Act and believe, as Johnson said in the Capitol rotunda 50 years ago, later passing pens to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy after signing the act into law, “Today what is perhaps the last of the legal barriers is tumbling. There will be many actions and many difficulties before the rights woven into law are also woven into the fabric of our nation. But the struggle for equality must now move toward a different battlefield.
“It is nothing less than granting every American Negro his freedom to enter the mainstream of American life: not the conformity that blurs enriching differences of culture and tradition, but rather the opportunity that gives each a chance to choose. For centuries of oppression and hatred have already taken their painful toll. It can be seen throughout our land in men without skills, in children without fathers, in families that are imprisoned in slums and in poverty.
“For it is not enough just to give men rights. They must be able to use those rights in their personal pursuit of happiness. The wounds and the weaknesses, the outward walls and the inward scars which diminish achievement are the work of American society. We must all now help to end them—help to end them through expanding programs already devised and through new ones to search out and forever end the special handicaps of those who are Black in a Nation that happens to be mostly white.”
These are some clear and simple words that we should struggle to uphold.