"We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. March on Washington 1963.
Why voting rights? Of all the ways institutional racism harms Black Americans, why focus on voting rights? Violence from the State, Jim Crow laws, implementing desegregating schools, the economic future of Black Americans, the impact of racism in health care, the list was and is big; why voting rights?
Dr. King made this case clearly in 1957 in his famous speech, "Give us the Ballot:"
"And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. [Audience:] (Yes)
Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.
….Give us the ballot (Give us the ballot), and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs (Yeah) into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.
….In this juncture of our nation's history, there is an urgent need for dedicated and courageous leadership." [i]
The ability to vote is vital to making the promise of our multiracial democracy a reality. Black Americans may be able to get passage of policies to alleviate the worst parts of consistent and unending white supremacy, but we could never ensure the ability to be full citizens of this country without the right to vote. Out of the right to vote come all other rights: the right to housing, health, food, safety, education, and reprieve from our government.
That is why the fight for representational democracy was met with so much violence. The fight just to register Black Americans to vote in the South focused on Alabama and Mississippi in 1964, termed the Freedom Summer, was met with unrelenting violence.
The ten-week voter registration project of the "The Mississippi Summer Project" was met with 35 shootings, at least 7 murders, (including infamously James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner), 37 churches were bombed, 30 homes or businesses, 80 beatings and over 1,000 arrests [ii]. The efforts culminated in the March from Selma to Montgomery. [iii]
As a kid, I remember seeing for the first time the marks left on my mother's legs from an attack from a police dog she faced down as a teenager working to register Black voters in South Carolina.
While the attacks on registering and voting have become more sophisticated and less overtly violent, the attacks have gone on unabated since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Today we find ourselves facing down questions about our ability to fully realize the promise of our multiracial democracy.
As of June 2023, States have added nearly 100 laws curbing voting access since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act 10 years earlier for Shelby according to the Brennan Center for Justice. [iv] For example in 2016 a Federal Appeals Court found that North Carolina law restricting voter access "target African Americans with almost surgical precision." [v] Since 2020, as NPR notes, Georgia added even new restrictions to voting in a state with some of the most restrictive voting laws targeted at diluting the voting participation of Voters of Color. And Georgia legislators turned the non-partisan act of counting those votes and have allowed partisan takeovers. [vi]
As Rev. William J. Barber II notes, "Since 2013, when I led the NC NAACP in challenging the first voter-suppression bill passed by a state after the Shelby decision, I've called this reality James Crow, Esquire. The data analysis and legal maneuvers are more sophisticated than Jim Crow, but the goal is the same: minority rule to preserve an unequal society while giving lip service to democracy." [vii]
During this Dr. King's celebration let's recommit to ensuring this sacred act of voting and democracy is able to be realized by all Americans. From the passage of the Voting Rights Act itself to defeating the anti-democratic initiatives this past fall in Ohio, Reform Jews have played a critical role in realizing America's dream of a multiracial democracy. Let's work together to break down any barriers to voting and to give those who need encouragement the reason they need to participate.
This year join the RAC in its Every Voice Every Vote campaign to continue our legacy of fighting for justice. That it may feel harder this year than in the past is just to signal how much more it is needed. Join us to get updates by signing up here.
[i] Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. "Give Us the Ballot." Presented at: Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom; May 17, 1957. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/give-us-ballot-address-delivered-prayer-pilgrimage-freedom
[ii] McAdam, Doug (1988). Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press
[iii] Eunice Hyon Min Rho. Remembering Dr. King's Defense of Voting Rights | ACLU. American Civil Liberties Union. Published January 16, 2012. https://www.aclu.org/news/voting-rights/remembering-dr-kings-defense-voting-rights
[iv] Singh, Jasleen & Carter, Sara. States Have Added Nearly 100 Restrictive Laws Since SCOTUS Gutted the Voting Rights Act 10 Years Ago | Brennan Center for Justice. www.brennancenter.org. Published June 23, 2023. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/states-have-added-nearly-100-restrictive-laws-scotus-gutted-voting-rights
[v] Childress, Sarah. Court: North Carolina Voter ID Law Targeted Black Voters. FRONTLINE. Published July 29, 2016. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/court-north-carolina-voter-id-law-targeted-black-voters/
[vi] 15.Martin, Michael & Fowler, Stephen. Since 2020, Georgia Has Restored Old Voting Restrictions and Added New Ones. NPR. Published online October 15, 2022. https://www.npr.org/2022/10/15/1129319076/since-2020-georgia-has-restored-old-voting-restrictions-and-added-new-ones
[vii] Barber, III RevWJ. Voting Rights Isn't Just a Black Issue. Time. Published January 14, 2022. https://time.com/6139456/martin-luther-king-jr-voting-rights/