Ashley K. Shelton
On this day, 57 years ago, March 7, 1965, activists endured attacks and abuse crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge to demonstrate for equal voting rights. Their sacrifice and valiant efforts led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote for all Americans, regardless of their color of their skin.
Every American deserves the right to a voice in how resources are allocated in their community, and in shaping the rules that affect their day-to-day life. That is why we need federal laws like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Freedom to Vote Act: to make sure politicians in the state government can’t take away our voice in government.
People who seek to limit the franchise are specifically targeting Black people, communities of color, and persons living in poverty. In a powerful piece for The Guardian, author Michael Harriot noted that “All politics is racial,” a more accurate reframing of the “All politics is local” quip which pundits and political consultants often cite. Harriot surmised what many of us have said all along– Race is at the center of Republican leaders and candidates’ every political decision.
Efforts to restrict the franchise are not about election integrity, as many Republicans are quick to claim, but rather about making it harder for communities of color and poor people to vote and have their votes counted. Harriot noted that “for years, there has been a subtle campaign to redefine racism by the intent and not the effects of discriminatory actions.” This movement gained steam with the gutting of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it has been around for decades. Efforts to make the college admissions process race-neutral was about excluding Black people while limiting the ability of Black people and our allies to talk about the pernicious impact of racism.
More recently, bans on the teaching of American history are also about erasing the burden of impact – if educators cannot talk about race, parents and students alike will be barred from discussing the ways in which their education is being adversely impacted by racism. Advocacy organizations, parents, students, and civil rights lawyers will have a steeper hill to climb in discussing the school-to-prison pipeline. The school-to-prison pipeline funnels young people from the class to the criminal justice system, and systematically denies Black, Latino, Native, children living with a disability and children identifying as LGBTQIA an opportunity to learn.
In more categories that one – voting rights, education equity, for instance– our nation is advancing chronologically, but regressing in terms of justice.
Black women, including the coalition partners within the Power Coalition for Equity & Justice, are responding by preparing Louisianians to better fight for an equitable and fair redistricting process. This body has been calling on elected leaders to ensure new maps that are representative of Louisiana.
During this round of redistricting, in Louisiana and beyond, Republican map drawers are not only refusing to create new electoral opportunities for communities of color, they are actively dismantling the voting power of communities of color and carving up such communities to preserve Republicans’ power.
Grassroots organizations like ours, are urging Louisiana lawmakers to increase minority representation. In citing census data, The Advocate reported that over 33% of Louisiana’s population identifies as Black. But among the 144 seats in the state legislature, only 37 are held by Black lawmakers- or just under 26% of members. Unfortunately, Republican legislators, have vowed to complete the redistricting process in under a week. At least 57 political fundraisers are planned during the 20-day redistricting session. It should go without saying that these lawmakers are reluctant to add majority-minority districts.
In moments like these, we call to mind the example of Parks and other historic figures such as Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer and Dorothy Height. In everything that we do – whether it be hosting a multicity roadshow in fall 2021, engaging voters around redistricting via mass text sessions where volunteers text voters, or convening advocates at the State Capitol to engage legislators – we are seeking to advance justice.
Our intention is to push back in ways that are accessible for us, and to encourage all people who have grown tired of the status quo to do the same. In the fight for what is right, there will be many battles. There will be short, mid- and long-term gains. But we cannot allow ourselves to be sidelined or discouraged. What we do today will influence the world our grandchildren enjoy tomorrow.
For that reason, we must refuse to relent, understanding that change is only possible if we continue to resist.
Ashley K. Shelton is the executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity & Justice