Sixty-four years ago, on the evening of Aug. 28, Sen. Strom Thurmond launched into the longest filibuster by an individual in the Senate’s history. Central to the racist history of the filibuster, Thurmond’s 24-hour filibuster failed to stop the new law but laid a foundation for challenging progress in the Senate.
The first new civil rights legislation since reconstruction, the 1957 Civil Rights Act, established the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Eight years before the Voting Rights Act, the 1957 Civil Rights Act expanded the power of federal prosecutors to seek injunctive relief to protect against interference with the right to vote.
Thurmond argued that the new civil rights legislation was both unconstitutional and unnecessary. A refrain echoed by his modern counterparts in the Senate.
Jumping ship during the Civil Rights era, Thurmond became the first of the major Southern Dixiecrats to flip parties. The same coded appeal to white supremacist values and desires to protect state’s rights is present in the modern attack on democracy.
For months, Black leaders and voters have been calling on the Senate to take action and end the filibuster. That same oppressive energy continues to prevent equal access to the ballot and the full promise of so-called American democracy.
“This time, though, we are not just fighting for voting rights,” said Dr. Bernice King during the March On Voting Right in Atlanta. “We are fighting to literally save our democracy from those who would attempt to root our nation in the oppressive weeds of yesterday through to a new generation of Jim Crow Voting Laws.”
Speaking with Mehdi Hasan, Rep. Terri Sewell said the march was a call to action for the Senate. She signaled that both Democrats and Republicans needed to take notice.
On the main stage at the March On For Voting Rights in Washington, D.C., Sewell said old battles have become new again. While the bill now bears Lewis’ name, Sewell said they spent years working on a modern formula for the Voting Rights Act.
“Modern-day suppression is alive and well,” Sewell told the crowd. “And we have to do our part to roll it back.”
And rolling back modern voter suppression and other efforts to erode democracy requires a Senate with the will and moral strength to act. As previously reported by NewsOne, the filibuster remains a major obstacle.
In an interview with NewsOne, Rebekah Caruthers, vice president at the Fair Elections Center, said the freedom to vote is critical to a healthy democracy.
“The freedom to vote is a core principle of our democracy,” explained Caruthers. “And for our democracy to work for all of us. It must include all of us. No matter our background, our race, where we’re from, all of us have a right to have an equal say in how key decisions are made and issues that impact everyone.”
Digging deeper, Caruthers said that people should not reduce the fight for voting rights to a partisan fight. “When we think about the For the People Act, what we’ve seen is that strengthening voting rights should not be a partisan issue,” she said. “In the original form of the For the People Act, it was supported by eight out of 10 Americans across the political spectrum. So it’s a nonpartisan issue.”
Voting rights and democracy reform is a nonpartisan issue with broad support everywhere except the Senate. Caruthers said this is also part of why her organization works so hard to protect the rights of students. Tying together voting rights and gerrymandering, she gave the example of efforts by the state of North Carolina to dilute the voting power of HBCU students.
“For example, after the 2010 Census, we saw in certain states, they gerrymandered campuses in such a way where they were dividing students up,” Caruthers continued. Think about what North Carolina did with North Carolina A&T. They literally drew a line through the campus to dilute the power of thousands of Black students. And that’s not acceptable.”
She stressed the importance of HBCUs in organizing around voting rights and civil rights more generally.
“One of the programs that we’re doing through our Campus Vote Project is partnering with HBCUs, to make sure we’re connecting that legacy with some of the best practices that we’ve learned with engaging campus administrators across the country,” explained Caruthers. “We want to pair those two things together because we understand we wouldn’t be able to advocate a fight for voting rights now if it wasn’t for the contributions of HBCUs to the movement.”
Yolanda Renee King, the granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, issued a call to action for other young people from the podium in the District of Columbia Saturday afternoon. The 13-year-old told other teens to get active and get loud.
While she’s unable to vote, Yolanda stressed that her voice and opinion matter. She encouraged other teens to reach out to their elected officials. The young advocate said their generation would be the one to liberate the generations to come.
She also had some tough words for elected officials standing in the way of voting rights. “Why are you in office,” asked the younger King? “Are you here for power or are you here to use your platform for good?”
Yolanda continued her strong rebuke, challenging elected officials to get right. “If you say you’re here for good, pass the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and the Washington, D.C. Admissions Act,” she demanded. “These bills cannot wait, and we are being silenced.”
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