While many Americans continue to mourn the recent death of Rep. John Lewis and reflect upon his contributions in civil rights and justice, a three-day virtual summit will seek to answer his plea to ensure voting rights for all citizens.
Fittingly, the “Voting Rights Act Weekend,” kicks off on Aug. 6 — the 55th anniversary of the signing of the landmark piece of federal legislation by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
Congress later amended the Act five times to expand its protections. Designed to enforce the voting rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Act secured the right to vote for racial minorities throughout the country, especially in the South. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the Act is considered to be the most effective piece of federal civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.
Lewis often decried, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” while pointing toward the importance of standing up to protect voting rights in America.
And with the general election just over three months away, a diverse group of national organizations have joined forces for a weekend that will include prayer, praise, workshops and a march from the site of the Thurgood Marshall Center Trust, Inc. in Northwest, also the hosting venue for the summit, to Black Lives Matter Plaza. The events begin at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Summit conveners include: the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., Barbara R. Arnwine, Esq. and Daryl D. Jones, Esq. under the auspices of The Rainbow PUSH Coalition (RPC), founded and led by Jackson, and the Transformative Justice Coalition (TJC), founded by Arnwine. Arnwine serves as the president of TJC with Jones providing leadership as the Coalition’s board chair.
Co-conveners RPC and TJC, in concert with noteworthy leaders, activists and organizations from across the U.S., say their committed to achieving the following goals: combating voter suppression; combating COVID-19 era “virus voter suppression;” opposing election interference; stopping police violence, killings and hate; promoting electoral reforms; providing cyber security’s best practices and awareness; and commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Arnwine says we must not allow “virus voter suppression to infect our election.”
“It is imperative that we provide safe options for all voters to cast their ballots, whether by mail, drop box, curbside or in-person voting,” she said. “It is the bedrock principle of American democracy that people be provided the right to safely exercise their right to vote.”
Rev. Jackson stresses that protecting the right and facilitating the streamlined effort to vote for communities of color remains as important in 2020 as any time in his storied civil rights career.
“There are many agendas out there but no agenda is more important than the vote,” he said.
The Voting Rights Act contains numerous provisions that regulate elections. Its “general provisions” provide nationwide protections for voting rights. Section 2 is a general provision that prohibits every state and local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities. Other general provisions specifically outlaw literacy tests and similar devices that were historically used to disenfranchise racial minorities. Another special provision requires jurisdictions containing significant language minority populations to provide bilingual ballots and other election materials.
Historical Background of the Act
Despite the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, African Americans in the South faced tremendous obstacles to voting. As a result, very few African Americans were registered voters, and they had very little, if any, political power, either locally or nationally. Reconstruction Era attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883, an action that ended the federal government’s efforts to protect civil rights for decades.
By the 1950s the civil rights movement galvanized the nation. Congress passed Civil Rights Acts in 1957, 1960, and 1964, but none of these laws were strong enough to prevent voting discrimination by local officials. On March 7, 1965, peaceful voting rights protesters in Selma, Alabama were violently attacked by Alabama state police. News cameras filmed the violence in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Many Americans and members of Congress began to wonder if existing civil rights laws would ever be properly enforced by the local authorities. The question before Congress was whether the federal government should guarantee the right to vote by assuming the power to register voters. Since qualifications for voting were traditionally set by state and local officials, federal voting rights protection represented a significant change in the constitutional balance of power between the states and the federal government.
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which aimed to increase the number of people registered to vote in areas where there was a record of previous discrimination. The legislation outlawed literacy tests and provided for the appointment of Federal examiners (with the power to register qualified citizens to vote) in certain jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination. In addition, these jurisdictions could not change voting practices or procedures without “preclearance” from either the U.S. Attorney General or the District Court for Washington, DC. This act shifted the power to register voters from state and local officials to the federal government.
Come One, Come All
Additional supporters of and spokespersons for the summit include: Ayanna Gregory, daughter of Dick Gregory; Thomasina W. Yearwood, president, Thurgood Marshall Center Trust, Inc.; the Rev. Bernice A. King, CEO, The Martin Luther King Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change; Thurgood Marshall Jr., Esq., son of Justice Thurgood Marshall; and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, president/senior lecturer, Repairers of the Breach. The free event seeks to protect America’s vote with additional sponsors including: the National Organization of Women, the National Election Defense Coalition, the NAACP, the Hip Hop Caucus, National Education Association, Vote.org and MomsArising.
TJC Board Chairman Jones said, “55 years ago, Congressman John Lewis stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge demanding the right to vote for people and communities of color. In 2020, we must stand together to be certain that the right to vote for people of color is not hijacked by voter poachers!”
For more information, go to www.votingrightsalliance.org.