Opinion: 55 years after the Voting Rights Act, there’s still work to do

The fight for the Black vote has never been more important.

An crowd surrounds the statue of Octavius Catto after its unveiling on the Southwest apron of Philadelphia City Hall in 2017

An crowd surrounds the statue of Octavius Catto after its unveiling on the Southwest apron of Philadelphia City Hall in 2017

Emma Lee / WHYY

The nation’s historic Voting Rights Act was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965, formalizing key provisions to allow Black voters across the country to participate in local and national elections without obstruction, discrimination, violence or intimidation.

Effects of the legislation were immediate and transformative. Black voter registration increased by 14% to 19%, and overall turnout grew by nearly a fifth. Tens of thousands of Black people across the United States have been elected to public office, including six U.S. senators and the country’s first Black president.

Yet structural barriers persist that disproportionately keep Black residents from casting ballots, from voter ID laws to long lines and limited hours at polling places.

Just before his recent death, U.S. Representative John Lewis wrote of the ways in which the current Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and systemic racism recalls his work as a leader in the U.S. civil rights movement.

“Emmet Till was my George Floyd,” he wrote, remembering the lynching of the 14-year-old boy who was just one year his junior at the time.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, Lewis was there, along with two other instrumental leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many others also loomed large in the room.

People like Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, the young girls murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, were there in spirit.

People like Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was brutally murdered by police during a peaceful protest in 1965 as he was protecting his mother. His death inspired the Selma to Montgomery marches, where 25,000 people joined arms to demand revolutionary change, giving rise to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. He was there too.

People like Herbert Lee, who fought against literacy tests, poll taxes and other discriminatory practices that barred Black citizens from voting across the South, and who was targeted, shot, and killed by a Mississippi State Representative in 1961 for his advocacy.

And people like Philadelphia’s Octavius Catto, who was born free and spent his lifetime fighting tirelessly for the abolition of slavery, for the desegregation of public space, for Black suffrage, and for quality Black education. Catto was shot and killed in 1871 for exercising his right to vote in his native city, where a monument in his honor became Philly’s first public statue commemorating a person of African American descent when it was erected in 2017.

Today, on the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, our movement leaders, our fallen martyrs. We celebrate this landmark civil rights victory and commit ourselves to the unfinished work of fully-realized Black citizenship.

Voting is just one important part of citizenship, but as we reckon with the legacies of centuries of violence, oppression and racism, it is critical to protect what Lewis called “the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”

While the tasks ahead of us are many, there are concrete steps we can take to protect Black people’s right to vote now and in the future.

At the local level, we must ensure ample polling places are available and safe for November’s elections, particularly in Black neighborhoods. We must support covering the cost of stamps for mail-in ballots and efforts to make sure everyone is aware voting by mail is easy and secure. We must also work to ensure Pennsylvania U.S. Senators Bob Casey Jr. and Pat Toomey understand how important it is to pass the pending John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

We can also work with neighborhood leaders, community-based organizations and political leadership to empower all citizens of voting age to register — and to cast their ballot in the pivotal election on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Lastly, we can continue to honor the legacy of John Lewis and those that came before him by pursuing new state legislation that makes voting accessible, convenient and safe for all citizens.

Automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration, restoring voting rights to people who have been incarcerated, streamlining vote by mail, and making Election Day a national holiday would dramatically increase voter participation.

The fight for the Black vote has never been more important. The road to justice has been paved with blood and with heartache. But the lives of those who have been lost in the fight against white supremacy, police violence, and voter suppression are not in vain. They galvanize us into action.

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