By Marc Morial
At the time of the 1963 March on Washington, where 23-year- old John Lewis was the youngest speaker, fewer than 20 percent of the Black citizens of his home state of Alabama were registered to vote.
County registration offices were open as seldom as two days a month, usually during the workday. The rare white employer who gave a Black employee time off to register risked economic retaliation from the local White Citizens Council.
Those who managed to make it to stand in the long, slow-moving registration lines faced harassment, intimidation and the possibility of arrest on false charges. The information entered on the application form would be shared with the Citizens Council and Ku Klux Klan.
Under the “voucher system,” applicants needed a registered voter to swear under penalty of perjury that the applicant met the qualifications to vote. In some counties, the few registered Black voters were permitted to vouch for only two or three applicants per year. Other counties had not a single registered Black voter who could vouch for applicants.
A Black citizen who successfully completed the application and the arduous and nonsensical literacy test, still could be rejected arbitrarily by the all-white Board of Registrars.
So it was throughout the South, until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed these racist tactics, and Black voter participation steadily grew until the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Act in 2013.
Shelby v. Holder, the Court’s worst decision in a civil rights case since 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson ushered in the era of Jim Crow, cleared the way for an onslaught of racially motivated voter suppression laws that threaten to return the nation to those dark days.
That is why, on Aug. 28 — 58 years to the day after the historic March on Washington — I’m proud to be joining Martin Luther King III, the Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders to help to lead Americans on another march to demand federal voting rights protection.
March On For Voting Rights is a nonviolent, nonpartisan mass mobilization to demand that elected officials protect democracy, denounce voter suppression and ensure fair, easy access to the vote for all through the passage of comprehensive federal legislation.
Marches will take place Aug. 28 in five flagship cities — Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Phoenix and Washington, D.C. — as well as in towns and cities across America where individuals and organizations launch and host them. I’ll be speaking at the Washington, D.C., march, along with Mr. King and Rev. Sharpton.
Shelby v. Holder may have opened the floodgates for racially motivated voter suppression laws — within 24 hours of the ruling, Texas announced a strict photo ID law, and Mississippi and Alabama began enforcing laws that previously had been struck down. But historically high Black voter turnout in the 2020 Presidential election and 2021 U.S Senate runoff election in Georgia accelerated and intensified the deluge. Just this year, anti-democracy legislators in 48 states have introduced nearly 400 proposals that would make it harder for Americans to vote, and 18 states have enacted 30 of them.
These laws limit or outright ban the voting methods that led to high turnout: ballot drop boxes and mail-in voting, early voting days and hours, even criminalizing the distribution of water to voters waiting in the long, slow-moving lines that recall the days of John Lewis’ youth.
Most of these laws would have been struck down under the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act that Shelby v. Holder eliminated. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives earlier this week, reinstates that provision.
The For the People Act, which passed the House in March and remains stalled in the Senate, creates a standard of federal voting rights, such as modernizing voter registration processes, as well as ending gerrymandering and enforcing campaign finance laws. It also facilitates information sharing between federal and state governments about threats to state election systems.
Speaking at the 1963 March, National Urban League Executive Director Whitney M. Young Jr. said, “How serious our national leaders are will be measured not by words but by the speed and sincerity with which they pass necessary legislation with which they admit to the tragic injustice that has been done our country and its Negro citizens by historic discrimination and rejection.”
The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act are the “necessary legislation” of which he spoke, and on Aug. 28, we will march to demand them.
Find out more at marchonforvotingrights.org and follow the conversation on social media using the hashtag #VotingRightsMarch
As John Lewis urged in 1963, “Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.”
Marc Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.