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Time to March: Action needed to protect Voting Rights Act

Avi Green

Professor Charles J. Ogletree is absolutely right about the terrible travesty of justice inflicted on our nation by the Supreme Court in its decision two weeks ago to invalidate a critical part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

This 5-4 decision should be an affront to all of us.

The steamroller that is the Republican voter suppression agenda — whether promoted by Republican state legislatures around the nation or through a Supreme Court controlled by hard right justices appointed by Republican presidents — simply must be stopped.

Federal intervention through the Voting Rights Act has been critical to the empowerment of millions of African-American voters.  As Gary May explained in his moving new book, Bending Toward Justice, the Voting Rights Act is one of the greatest laws ever passed in our nation, a crown jewel, and the single most successful law passed during the classical period of the civil rights movement.  

Consider the power and effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. In a nation where there is still de facto segregation and racial inequality in terms of where children go to school, where families live and where people work, at least we can count on one thing: the reassuring fact that most African Americans can vote, and that their votes count equally with those of whites.

For years now, there have been slow, morally grotesque efforts to chip away at black voting rights, notably through a combination of disproportionate enforcement of drug laws and laws that take away the right to vote from people with a rap sheet.

To be clear, this has been the case mainly outside Massachusetts. Here in the Bay State, any citizen over 18, so long as they are not actually in prison on a felony conviction, can register and vote with no penalty of any kind — the Massachusetts voting system for people who are not in prison is entirely separate from our criminal justice system.  

Lately, especially since 2010, the attacks on voting rights have accelerated. Many of the 26 states run by Republican-controlled legislatures and Republican governors have passed law after law to make it more difficult to vote. While Voter ID laws are some of their most common ploys, they have also shortened early voting periods, put limits on voter registration drives, and made it more difficult to get absentee ballots. They have even reduced the number of polling places, voting booths and election personnel, forcing people to wait for five hours or longer to vote.

Many of these laws came into effect even before the Supreme Court’s conservative faction took a hammer to the Voting Rights Act. That is because the act only brought its strongest protections to about 10 states of the old Confederacy, states with the worst history of discriminatory actions meant to prevent African Americans from voting.

If hearing about all that the anti-voter wing of the Republican Party has achieved so far makes the acid taste of bad memories rise in your throat, you are not alone.  

This rising tide of anti-voter action is reminiscent of the horror of the end of Reconstruction, when the Union Army pulled out its occupying forces from the South and the Ku Klux Klan and the Klan’s allies in government took away the vote from hundreds of thousands of African Americans and pushed hundreds of black elected officials out of office. They took away rights that would not be restored for nearly 100 years.

We cannot wait 100 years to undo the damage this time. Every elected official, from local city councilors to the president, must be required by citizens like you and me to become an active leader for voting rights.  They must be pressured until we have in place laws that guarantee that every citizen is automatically registered to vote, and that every citizen has ample opportunity to vote in an atmosphere of respect and dignity.

To do that, we must make noise, we must call and call and call again our elected officials until they get on board, and we must replace them if they fail to help our cause.  And we must march.

The NAACP and many other organizations will be marching on Washington in the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom on August 24.

Avi Green is civic outreach director for the Scholars Strategy Network, former director of MassVOTE, and a member of the NAACP.