In January 1967, 55 years ago this month, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took a very rare sabbatical at an isolated house in Jamaica far away from telephones and the constant pressures of his life as a civil rights leader to write what would become his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” He opened Chapter One in the middle of a joyous scene a year and a half earlier:
“On August 9, 1965, the President’s Room of the Capitol could scarcely hold the multitude of white and Negro leaders crowding it. President Lyndon Johnson’s high spirits were marked as he circulated among the many guests whom he had invited to witness an event he confidently felt to be historic, the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The legislation was designed to put the ballot effectively into Negro hands in the South after a century of denial by terror and evasion … In signing the measure, the President announced that ‘Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that’s ever been won on any battlefield … today we strike away the last major shackle of … fierce and ancient bonds.”
But, as Dr. King already knew, those shackles had not really been destroyed. He went on to describe how much of the promise of that historic day already seemed to have disappeared one year later. Riots had erupted in Northern and Western cities. Civil rights workers were murdered in the South. Groups who had been united in the fight for voting rights in Selma were bitterly divided over what should happen next. And in politics, Dr. King noted, “the white backlash had become an emotional electoral issue in California, Maryland and elsewhere. In several Southern states, men long regarded as political clowns had become governors or only narrowly missed election, their magic achieved with a ‘witches” brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and whole lies.” He would surely recognize the parallels in our nation today.
Dr. King argued then that the Voting Rights Act had ended one phase of development in the civil rights revolution, the fight to treat Black Americans with “a degree of decency,” but had opened a new phase: the fight for equality. More than a half-century later we are still in that fight. And just as the battle for equality continues, the long struggle for voting rights is not over yet either.
As protections in the Voting Rights Act have been dismantled following the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, voter suppression efforts targeting Black, Brown, and young voters are once again on the rise. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have enacted 34 new laws making it harder to vote in the wake of the 2020 election, “justifying these measures with falsehoods steeped in racism about election irregularities and breaches of election security.” We still need to “make good on the promise of the 15th Amendment — that no citizen be denied the right to vote based on race.”
This King holiday, let’s honor Dr. King not with words or statues but actions and policies to protect the fundamental right to vote. Urge your members of Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act now. And if you are eligible to vote, recommit to exercising your right this year and every year, no matter what new Jim Crow obstacles others are trying to put in our way.
We must fight back against any and all efforts to suppress our votes and take every necessary step to cast a vote in every election, every race, every time. As King Center CEO Bernice King said, “This is critical, because as important as it is that voting rights legislation is passed — and I can’t overemphasize how important that is — it is equally important though that we mobilize people to vote and ensure that the masses are educated on how to leverage our votes toward creating a just, humane, equitable and peaceful nation and world.” She is urging others to “educate, advocate and activate.”
Through his words and his example, Dr. King reminded us to keep moving forward and taking action. He said: “Structures of evil do not crumble by passive waiting. If history teaches anything, it is that evil is recalcitrant and determined, and never voluntarily relinquishes its hold short of an almost fanatical resistance. Evil must be attacked by a counteracting persistence, by the day-to-day assault of the battering rams of justice.”
Let’s listen to his voice this King holiday and heed his daughter’s call to educate, advocate and activate!
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.