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Voting Rights

New Hope on Shelby Anniversary


This op-ed was distributed by Trice Edney Newswire.

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority prevailed in a case that undermined one of the crowning achievements of the 1960s civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That ruling in Shelby County v. Holder eight years ago gutted the Act’s requirement that states with a history of voter suppression get federal approval to change any of their voting laws.

The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a famous dissent in Shelby blasting the conservatives’ claim that the requirement was no longer needed. She wrote that if voter suppression had receded, it was largely because the Voting Rights Act was working – so tossing the Act was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."

Fast-forward to 2021, and we are reaping what the destruction of the Voting Rights Act has sown. Southern states rushed to pass voter-suppression laws in the wake of Shelby, and those laws have kept coming. This year we saw a big jump in voter-suppression laws in states where far-right legislators hold sway. The result is a voting-rights emergency worse than anything we’ve experienced since the early 1960s, when activists took to the streets to demand an end to racist voter suppression.

That’s why it was so apt to see the revival this month of a cornerstone of that early civil rights movement: the Freedom Ride. Just days ago on Juneteenth, a new generation of Freedom Riders organized by Black Voters Matter began a voting-rights advocacy tour on the “Blackest Bus in America.”

The ride was set to make stops in cities where legendary events in the early civil rights movement happened: places like Jackson, Mississippi; Birmingham, Alabama; and Atlanta, Georgia – wrapping up in Washington, D.C. Like the original Freedom Riders who rode buses throughout the South to demand an end to Jim Crow, these new riders are demanding an end to what has become known as “Jim Crow 2.0” – the new wave of voter suppression laws.

I’m very proud that my organization, People For the American Way, had one of our young organizers on board that bus. Markus Batchelor helps lead our Young Elected Officials Network and was the youngest person ever elected to the D.C. Board of Education. Markus embodies the hope we have for our next generation of leaders. At a New Freedom Ride stop in Nashville, he told the Nashville Tennessean that it “feels amazing” to follow in the footsteps of original Freedom Riders, some of whom were present for the stop. "I think it reinforces the importance of continuing that work, because they didn't do it for nothing," he said.

Indeed, they didn’t. And we won’t let their hard work and sacrifices be swept away decades later by cynical lawmakers trying to cling to power by preventing people from voting.

The New Freedom Ride tour was all about three critical steps: passing the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to restore and protect voting rights, and passing legislation for D.C. statehood to ensure full representation for District citizens. None of these things will be easy. While the tour was under way, the For the People Act hit, which garnered the support of every Democrat in the Senate hit a roadblock because of a wall of Republican opposition. Some in the media were quick to declare it dead – again.

But to borrow words from a song we all know, “a change gon’ come.” Every inch of ground we have gained for voting rights has been hard-won over time, and this fight is no different. We will restore federal protection for voting rights -- for our communities, for our kids, for our up-and-coming leaders like Markus who will succeed us in this movement and for all those who came before us. We’ll win because we’ll keep the faith and stay focused. That’s our pledge on this anniversary of the harm caused by Shelby; to make this year its last.