“Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield. Yet to seize the meaning of this day, we must recall darker times,” President Lyndon B. Johnson remarked after signing into law the Voting Rights Act. “Three and a half centuries ago, the first Negroes arrived at Jamestown. They did not arrive in brave ships in search of a home for freedom.
“They did not mingle fear and joy, in expectation that in this New World anything would be possible to a man strong enough to reach for it. They came in darkness and they came in chains. And today we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds. Today the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend.”
We have no way of knowing how Johnson would feel today with that law slowly losing its effectiveness, the most devastating blow delivered by the Supreme Court two years ago. Johnson promised the American public that “tomorrow at 1 p.m., the attorney general has been directed to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the poll tax in the state of Mississippi. This will begin the legal process which, I confidently believe, will very soon prohibit any state from requiring the payment of money in order to exercise the [right] to vote.”
He also said the Justice Department would officially certify the states where discrimination exists. That measure, Section 5, the heart of the Voting Rights Act, was eviscerated by the high court, which proclaimed it was no longer necessary to have these districts apply to the courts whenever any change was made that might affect the franchise in their area.
The act also had safeguards against the reassertion of Jim Crow laws, a federal initiative to challenge state’s rights and to prevent some of the recent changes endangering voters, particularly in North Carolina. Johnson would probably be outraged to learn of some of the tactics now proposed to make it difficult for some voters to have easy access to the polls.
Most egregious is the push to eliminate early voting, same-day registering and weekend voting and the requirement of an ID to vote. In effect but far more subtle is the resurgence of disenfranchisement, especially an imposition for poor and Black citizens, who primarily vote for Democrats. The ID measure has been lodged on the false notion that there is widespread voter fraud, though that actually occurs about as often as Haley’s Comet appears. Elected officials and civil rights icons such as Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who was present when the act was signed, have voiced their concern about the actions to dissipate the legislation.
“We’re here 50 years later demanding that the Congress and our Republican colleagues do the right thing and bring a voting rights bill to the floor,” said Lewis last Thursday at the Capitol. “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred in a democratic society.’’
The Rev. William Barber, president of the NAACP in North Carolina, has been a consistent foe of any retrenchment, leading “Moral Mondays” in his state in the fight to retain voting rights for all citizens. “What I know is what we are in is a time when we can’t afford to be silent,” said Barber, perched against a tall stool in his office at his church in Goldsboro. “We are battling for the soul and consciousness of this country.”
His series of marches and protests, he said, target conservative politics and Republicans, who took control of the North Carolina statehouse and governor’s office in 2013, and they cover everything from redistricting to labor laws to women’s rights, gay rights and the environment. According to an account in a Carolina newsletter, Moral Mondays are the legislative protest piece of the broader Forward Together movement led by the NAACP, which is in court over the state’s new voting law and will be back in court next month to challenge redistricting.
What Lewis and Barber are doing is to assure that what Johnson signed, sealed and delivered 50 years ago remains the law of the land.
“This is a victory for the freedom of the American Negro,” Johnson declared at the close of his remarks. “But it is also a victory for the freedom of the American nation. And every family across this great, entire, searching land will live stronger in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation and will be prouder to be American because of the act that you have passed that I will sign today.”