We thought we had escaped the Jim Crow laws established and enacted between 1876 and 1965, shortly after the emancipation of slaves. If we don’t quite remember the mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities within the Southern states comprising the former Confederacy, starting with 1890’s “separate but equal” status for African-Americans, we are headed back there now. The Jim Crow laws separated White from Black, putting African-Americans in inferior conditions based on class, race, and status, systematizing the economic, educational, and social inequalities and disparities that still persist today. The rebellion of the southern United States and the resultant Confederacy steered patterns of segregation in housing, enforced by covenants, bank lending procedures, and job discrimination—including discriminatory union practices—for decades. Remember, Jim Crow laws enforced the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, as well as the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for Whites and Blacks. Keep in mind that these laws followed the 1800–1866 Black Codes, which had previously restricted the civil rights and liberties of African-Americans with no pretense of equality.
Just hours ago, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder that gutted a signature achievement of the Civil Rights Movement: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It places millions of African-Americans, people of color, women, and many who had gained freedom from slavery, the American apartheid system (Jim Crow), and other vicious schemes of oppression, racial profiling, and discrimination at the mercy of a dysfunctional Supreme Court neurotic about addressing ideological transgressions as opposed to just doing the right thing. History now has the opportunity to repeat itself—an American history that most want to forget, even the perpetrators of the racist regimes that enforced hatred, incarceration, and the spread of deranged ideological beliefs.
While I hoped that the Supreme Court would make the right decision, knowing Americans’ history, and after hearing the arguments, it is hard to be shocked by today’s result. Justice Scalia even described the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act as “the perpetuation of a racial entitlement.” Since he uttered this, that phrase—“racial entitlement”—has lingered in my mind for months now. In my mind, this is an attempt to deflect a discussion of immortal wounds from America’s past and the predators who inflicted the lashes that kept Blacks and free slaves away from the polls. History must not repeat itself.
For Black people, voting has never been an entitlement; it is a freedom that has been earned through extraordinary sacrifice, blood, poverty, economic limitations, severe inequalities, generational disparities, systematic oppression, and discrimination inflicted upon free slaves and their descendants. Because the right to vote is not explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution, ideological state legislators have been attacking that very right in states across the country, including the great state of Michigan. That is why we need a constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote for all, wherever they live, with protections against reemerging cynical acts of oppression conducted throughout Southern states.
Without an amendment guaranteeing the right and freedom to vote, each state sets its own electoral rules, leading to confusing and sometimes contradictory policies with regard to polling hours, registration requirements, voting equipment, ex-felon rights, even ballot design. The result is an electoral system divided—separate and unequal. Black people died and made sacrifices so that all people of color, women, and minorities could have civil and voting rights.
For decades, the Voting Rights Act has protected voters in pockets of the country with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices, blocking more than 1,500 laws aimed at making it harder for us to vote. Just this past election, it allowed the Justice Department to block attempts to manipulate the voter rolls by politicians in Texas, South Carolina, and Florida. Now that the Court has overturned Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, previously protected states such as these are now in limbo.
I ask all African-Americans, people of color, women, and other minorities who have experienced voter intimidation, discrimination, and oppression to join me in letting the Supreme Court and Congress know that voting should be the fundamental right and freedom of all citizens, regardless of race, creed, color, sex, or ethnicity.
Current right-wing ideologue efforts to make it harder for people to vote are not bound by geography or a history of racial discrimination—they are widespread, targeted, and coordinated. When you really begin to dig into the types of right-wing ideologue voter suppression bills that are spreading across the country—discriminatory voter ID laws, proof-of-citizenship requirements, laws that prevent groups like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote from organizing registration drives, attempts to purge people with minorities names from the rolls, and limits on weekend voting hours in urban communities—it is clear that far-right politicians are trying to keep the rising majority of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, immigrants, young people, women, and people of color away from the polls.
Shifting attitudes and demographics demand a new approach to protecting the freedom and right to vote. We have to stop playing defense and start working to enact bold changes and expand the fundamental right to vote.
Please join me in ensuring all Americans have the right and freedom to vote.
The Voting Rights Act was the result of decades of hard work, advocacy, protests and marches, and courage in the face of death, lynching’s, and isolated incidents of extreme violence and oppression. It was one of the crowning achievements of a generation and cannot be lost because of a lack of continued advocacy.
The road to a constitutional amendment for the right to vote is similarly long and paved with obstacles. This is no ordinary campaign, but rather, one that will require years of hard work to win.
Let us keep rising together and ensure that every American has the freedom and fundamental right to vote and that the clock is not turned back to the days of Jim Crow and the American apartheid system.
Power to the People,
Ken L. Harris
Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, Inc.
P. S.: Special thanks to Rashad Robinson, executive director, ColorOfChange.org