Opinion Columns & Blogs

August 3, 2013

Bob Ray Sanders: 50 years after March on Washington, voting rights aren’t secure for all

“We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963

“We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.” – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 1963

Aug. 28 will be the 50th anniversary of the day those words were spoken by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the great March on Washington.

King was answering the aggravating question he said was being asked of civil rights advocates: “When will you be satisfied?”

He gave a litany of milestones that would have to be met, including ending discrimination at the ballot box, before black people in this country would be satisfied.

One would think that after 50 years, this country would have achieved those goals. And yet as preparations are being made for the commemoration of that “March for Jobs and Freedom” five decades ago, we are still fighting against attempts to deny certain people in this country that most precious right to vote.

Republican leaders in some states, such as my native Texas, have been re-energized in their discriminatory efforts by the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in June that struck down part of the Voting Rights Act, passed just two years after the Washington march.

The court knocked down the provision in the act that designated 16 jurisdictions in the country – those with a history of discrimination – for required preclearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before making any changes to election laws.

In Texas, which last year saw its voter-ID law and its redistricting maps declared discriminatory by the courts, officials wasted no time in returning to business as usual. Within hours after the Supreme Court ruling, state Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that the voter-ID law would go into effect immediately, affirming what had been feared by supporters of the Voting Rights Act.

Similarly, states such as Florida and North Carolina rushed to resume their efforts in denying access to the ballot box. Under the guise of preventing illegal immigrants from voting, Florida resurrected its purging of the registered voter rolls that targeted mostly Latino-sounding names and proved to be highly inaccurate.

North Carolina, which had incredibly long lines in the 2012 election, passed a bill that obviously is intended to suppress the vote by cutting the number of early voting days, requiring voter ID, prohibiting the extension of voting hours when lines are long, and forbidding registering and voting on the same day.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, noting Texas’ past and recent history of discrimination, has joined with plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state asking that Texas remain under preclearance. President Obama made it clear that his administration would work to improve the Voting Rights Act legislatively and through the courts.

Needless to say, state officials are upset that the attorney general and the president would dare interfere with the way their sovereign governments conduct elections, even if their unsavory methods keep a few thousand people from having the opportunity to vote.

I’m proud of Holder for this action, and I’m particularly happy that he is using Texas as a test case.

As people return to the National Mall to commemorate the march and King’s speech, they surely will carry with them a resolve that we will not allow the clock to be turned back.

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