On May 17, 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a poignant speech calling for an end to Black voter suppression:
“Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”
Eight years later, Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act – the most comprehensive voting rights legislation since Reconstruction – effectively ending voter intimidation and suppression tactics against African Americans. But the battle to ensure that the United States Constitution applied to all citizens, not just white male landowners, started at the nation’s founding.
By 1870, the civil war and the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution made African Americans U.S. citizens and granted Black men’s right to vote. Roughly 200 Black men were elected to all levels of government, including the U.S Congress. Now, 150 years later, we’re still fighting the same battle.
Saturday marks the 57th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Last year, 19 states passed 34 laws aimed at restricting voter access. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, lawmakers in 27 state legislatures introduced a staggering 148 election-interfering proposals this year. The Voting Rights Alliance lists 61 common voter suppression tactics – a peek into democracy deniers’ playing hand. How the hell did we get here?
In 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby vs. Holder gutted a centerpiece of voting protections inherent in the Voting Rights Act, requiring states with a history of discrimination against minority voters to clear proposed changes in district maps and voting policy with the federal government. It blocked voter discrimination before it hurt minorities.
The new ruling shifts the burden to prove voting discrimination from the federal government to voters. A far-right faction seeking minority rule and fueled by money power is stacking the deck.
In Texas, two white conservative oil magnates – Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks – are shaping that state’s politics to reflect their interests by throwing their billions behind far-right politicians. Unite America reports that roughly two percent of Virginia’s primary voters elected 73% of that state’s U.S. representatives.
Now, as was true of wealthy landowners throughout U.S. history, the battle lines are drawn by those with fat wallets. If we’re not vigilant, those fat wallets will sink our democracy.
King knew that. He understood that without both economic and political power, a just and equal democracy would be hard to sustain:
“We have been in a reform movement…But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
It’s not that Black folks haven’t tried. The Tulsa race massacre of 1921 is a prime example of white demand for economic and political supremacy, destroying a thriving community of successful Black-owned businesses due to hate and jealousy.
Moreover, there’s a direct correlation between homeownership and generational wealth. Political disenfranchisement is much more prevalent where there are pockets of poverty.
I live in a formerly redlined area in Akron, Ohio. Although illegal, I believe redlined clusters, designed to contain Black mobility and curtail Black wealth-building, provide a handy map for Congressional gerrymandering. The Legal Reader reports that states with conservative majorities use two devices called “packing” and “cracking.”
“Packing” is when lawmakers lump pockets of “expendable” voters into a single precinct. Naturally, it solidifies the winning vote for their opponent. By consolidating those formerly redlined districts, they dilute voter opposition. “Cracking” is when a redlined area is broken and distributed among surrounding areas with an overwhelming majority of conservatives. Disenfranchised votes are watered down so as not to matter.
These sneaky practices silence Black, Brown, Asian and working folks’ votes while stealing from them their right to participate in shaping our democracy. It upholds white supremacy by pulling the rug from under people of color before they can get on their feet.
I often think about how our enslaved ancestors lived. No one showed them how to use a map or locate themselves geographically. They told stories, sang songs and used quilts and astronomy to escape to freedom. Black people built the Underground Railroad that way. Later, to escape Jim Crow, Black folks looked to the North for their liberty.
Today, we no longer find freedom by running North. The new path is by representation in wards, precincts, and Congressional and Senate districts. The ballot box is our path to freedom.
BIPOC voters pushed Obama and Biden over the finish line. And in 2020, we were vital in flipping the Senate (shout out to NGP!).
We’re only months away from midterm elections when local and statewide offices will be on the ballot. Some are smaller seats, but they have a significant impact.
But, showing up in record numbers for high-profile Presidential races won’t protect our democracy. We can’t afford to sit out until 2024. As recent assaults on our democracy show us – like the cancerous “big lie” and the January 6th insurrection – modern Confederates disguised as “Patriots” are bolder now.
The VRA gave us the power to protect, access, and shape our democracy. We must use it today to build the multi-racial broad-based popular democracy we all need to protect our future and planet.
DaMareo Cooper is a co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action and a longtime community organizer and activist for equality and civil rights