Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
-President Lyndon B. Johnson
March 15, 1965
These words preceded the historic August 6, 1965 signing of the Voting Rights Act. Today is the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing, which celebrates the significant enfranchisement of voters but also reminds us of our responsibility to relentlessly protect this fundamental right of democracy.
In a special message, President Lyndon B. Johnson demanded that Congress pass the Voting Rights Act (VRA), protecting African Americans’ ability to vote. Until that point, southern states had imposed racist voting laws, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, specifically designed to create barriers for African American voters.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders previously pressured Johnson to pass voting rights legislation, but despite his sympathetic stance, Johnson could not reconcile the political landscape with his desire to aid the Civil Rights movement. Johnson’s presidential opponent Senator Barry Goldwater was already gaining traction in southern states by questioning the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Bill.
Only after America witnessed police assaulting nonviolent Selma marchers did Johnson have the popular mandate to deliver his iconic speech. It was the fortunate collision of a forward-looking president, brave Alabama activism, and horrific police brutality that allowed a politically divided country to pass the VRA on this day in 1965.
On a state level, activists and organizers have worked to build on the impact of the VRA. In 2009, Solid Ground’s advocacy branch, the Statewide Poverty Action Network, joined with the ACLU of Washington to pass the Voting Rights Restoration Act, which restored voting rights to approximately 400,000 previously incarcerated people in our state.
Marcy Bowers, Poverty Action Director, said: “The legacy of the VRA is as important today as it was 50 years ago. Our country still struggles to make peace with its history of slavery and racism. We see this in the news daily: members of the African American and Latino communities dying at the hands of a militarized police force, brave activists demanding change, and a federal government struggling to find the political will to make the needed changes.
“Because of the disproportionate number of people of color in our criminal justice system, this law greatly expanded voting rights for many people of color in our state. Since 2009, Poverty Action’s election efforts have included a special focus on reaching and educating these voters about their rights, as well as registering and engaging them in voting. Through this outreach, we have reached thousands of voters, ensuring that they can access the promises of the national VRA.”
In the year 2013, the Supreme Court decided to strike down the preclearance provision of the VRA. The provision forced historically racist states to get federal approval for their voting procedures. Chief Justice Roberts gutted one of the most effective acts in American history on the basis that racism is not the problem it was 50 years ago. Following the decision, six of nine states announced plans to move forward with more restrictive voter ID laws.
In her dissent, Justice Ruth Ginsburg wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
On this 50th anniversary of the VRA, we must renew the call to ensure that everyone can access the most basic, fundamental right of our democracy. If you’re interested in volunteering with Poverty Action to register voters this summer, please contact Davíd at firstname.lastname@example.org.