Martin Luther King’s voting message is relevant for United States today
This week, Martin Luther King is being honored in civic and religious venues throughout the nation. Most often, the words chosen will come from his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, with its vision that “little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Today, the nation seems further from that promised land of equality and justice than when King was killed. Worse yet, the most fundamental right King fought for — the right to vote — is under the most intense attack since the emergence of Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War South.
A more appropriate speech to represent King today would be his “Give Us the Ballot” speech delivered in 1957. This was the speech that brought King to national prominence, and laid the foundation for passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“No nation can long continue to flourish or to find its way to a better society while it allows any one of its citizens ... to be denied the right to participate in the most fundamental of all privileges of democracy — the right to vote,” King told a crowd on 20,000 assembled before the Lincoln Memorial steps in 1957.
The Voting Rights Act prohibited practices, ranging from literacy tests to poll taxes, enacted by Southern states to prevent blacks from voting. The act also empowered federal agencies to ensure that voting places were accessible to all people.
Since taking effect in 1965, the act has been extended four times.
Not until 2008 were the full implications of the Voting Rights Act realized. Minority voters, young voters, retired voters and other groups not usually likely to vote, turned out in unprecedented numbers to elect Barack Obama.
As a result of that election, weakening the Voting Rights Act has become a Republican priority. New voter restriction laws aimed at reducing participation by groups likely to vote Democratic have been introduced in at least 34 states. More than 5 million Americans could lose their right to vote in 2012 if these measures are successful.
The new voting laws establish photo ID requirements, change early voting periods, ban or set prohibitive requirements for out-of-state college students to vote, terminate voting rights for ex-felons who have served their sentences, institute complicated rules for voter registration and establish other measures designed to suppress voters who trend Democratic.
Fortunately, the Justice Department is beginning to investigate these new voting restrictions for violations of the Voting Rights Act. The department has already invalidated a South Carolina voter ID law. Others in other states are under investigation.
“Protecting the right to vote, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination must be viewed, not only as a legal issue, but as a moral imperative,” Attorney General Eric Holder said. “And ensuring that every eligible citizen has the right to vote must become our common cause.”
In December, a coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League held a “Stand for Freedom” rally at the United Nations to protest these infringements on the right to vote.
Afterward, the NAACP announced the launch of “an unprecedented voter registration drive and our first-ever voter identification drive. And throughout next year, we will wage voting rights battles in state houses and courts around the country.”
Legislation has been introduced in the House to curb rampant voter suppression, but it is not expected to pass. Meantime, state and local officials show little inclination to lead the fight to restore and protect voting rights for all American citizens.
“The civil rights issue is not an ephemeral, evanescent domestic issue that can be kicked about by reactionary guardians of the status quo; it is rather an eternal moral issue which may well determine the destiny of our nation.”
As King warned, “The hour is late. The clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now, before it is too late.”