For many of us, the indelible image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is of him standing on those marble steps in 1963, Lincoln looming in the background, describing his magnificent dream. Just as relevant today is another speech Dr. King gave from that same spot six years earlier.
On May 17, 1957, the three-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s first decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, civil rights leaders held a “Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.” They came to Washington to plead with their national government to make good on the promise of Brown. Dr. King was clear about how best Congress and the President might do so.
“Give us the ballot,” he said, “and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.” “Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.”
Dr. King knew that equal suffrage would empower black citizens in the South to form electoral coalitions with “white . . . open-minded moderates,” that could overcome the “close-minded reactionaries” who held sway throughout the old Confederacy. “Give us the ballot,” he said, “and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill." It would take eight more long years of costly struggle, of sit-ins and Freedom Rides, a March on Washington, a Freedom Summer, and Selma, before the Voting Rights Act would indeed “give us the ballot.”
When it did, registration and turnout rates for black voters in the South skyrocketed. A 30-point gap in registration rates in 1960 dropped to about 8 points by 1970. While discriminatory practices remained throughout the country, the tremendous sea change visited by the Voting Rights Act cannot be diminished. Nearly two hundred years after the Constitution’s ratification, the Voting Rights Act had finally “guarantee[d] to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”
Unfortunately, the Voting Rights Act’s tremendous success created the conditions of its own demise. Chief Justice John Roberts, in holding unconstitutional the Act’s coverage formula for “preclearance” (by which some of the most problematic jurisdictions must seek Justice Department approval before making elections changes), noted that the Act had been successful in virtually eliminating racial gaps in registration and turnout. The covered states had changed, he argued, and their states’ rights entitled them to the same free reign other states had in crafting voting rules.
Less than two months after the Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, North Carolina – much of which had previously been subject to preclearance – demonstrated just how wrong the Chief Justice had been by passing the most sweeping voter suppression law seen in decades. Other formerly covered jurisdictions would follow suit, as would some that had not been subject to preclearance. The Court’s willingness to discard a crucial part of the nation’s bedrock voting rights law emboldened those who would strip citizens of their basic rights for partisan advantage.
We’ve seen the impact of Shelby County here in Arizona too. The absurdly long lines Maricopa County voters faced during the March 2016 Presidential Preference Election were a direct result of the County no longer having to submit its polling place plans to the Justice Department for preclearance.
We’ve also witnessed more malicious attempts to curtail voting by particular groups of citizens. Last year’s HB 2023 criminalized the act of helping a fellow voter to return their ballot, for no reason other than Latino vote mobilization groups had used this tactic to help their friends and neighbors participate in democracy. This year, a representative from the district covering Northern Arizona University is trying to disenfranchise college students. Since Arizonans no longer have the assistance of federal preclearance, it falls to us to stop these “conniving methods” from depriving our fellow citizens of their most fundamental right.
We are ready to play our part at the Arizona Advocacy Network, not only in fighting vote suppression, but in promoting affirmative steps toward access to the ballot like automatic voter registration.
As Dr. King said 60 years ago, “[i]n this juncture of our nation’s history, there is an urgent need for dedicated and courageous leadership.” As you reflect on Dr. King’s legacy today, please consider contributing to our work.