What You Really Need to Know About the Voting Rights Act

By Marissa Luna

Today marks 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, protecting Americans from being racially discriminated against in the voting process.

The Voting Rights Act is a crucial tool in expanding voting rights that would be nothing if not for the people who lived and died in the struggle to have a voice in our democracy over the last 50+ years.

Civil rights heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Congressman John Lewis are some of the most well-known activists of the movement that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. They’re the ones who are talked about in our history books, the ones whose names immediately come to mind when we think of the Civil Rights Movement.

There are countless others — particularly women — who were the backbone of the movement who are often overlooked when we talk about the decades-long ongoing journey to protect every American’s right to vote:

One woman you might not be familiar with is Septima Clark, who, in the 1950s and 1960s, developed Citizenship Schools to teach disenfranchised African Americans to read and write in order to pass the discriminatory literacy tests required by southern states to register to vote. More than 800 Citizenship Schools were created under her leadership.

On August 27th, 1957, a rock shattered the window of the home of Daisy Bates with a note tied to it that read: “Stone this time. Dynamite next.” Bates was the mentor to the Little Rock Nine, a group of African American students who integrated Little Rock Central High School, a previously all-white high school. Her house was a haven for the students where they would go for safety before and after school. During that time it also became a target for racist segregation supporters, but that didn’t stop Daisy and the Little Rock Nine from sending a strong message that racial segregation would not be tolerated in Arkansas or anywhere else.

Mahalia Jackson is known as the “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” She inspired thousands when she sang at Selma, the March on Washington, and Dr. King’s funeral. She not only sang the lead-in to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, she also played a direct role in making it one of the most memorable speeches in history when she shouted from behind the podium as Dr. King was speaking, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

These women and many others deserve to be recognized and celebrated. We also need to recognize that their struggle still continues today in a different form.

Discrimination and racism might not be as blatantly obvious today as it was 50 years ago, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Institutionalized racism, when social and political institutions discriminate either deliberately or indirectly against certain groups of people to limit their rights, still very much exists even if you like to pretend we live in a “colorblind” society.

The attempts being made today by some elected leaders in Washington to dismantle the Voting Rights Act are a prime example. They are deliberate attempts to undo the decades of progress that people like Septima Clark, Daisy Bates, and Mahalia Jackson worked to achieve.

Today, states across the country are passing discriminatory laws that make it more difficult to vote. To say that attempts to stop people from voting are motivated by anything other than racism coupled with the desire for unbridled power is a delusion. We might not be moving backwards in Michigan, but we’re certainly dragging our feet when it comes to increasing voters’ access to the ballot by passing simple reforms like no-reason absentee voting and online voter registration, all of which can easily be done.

The responsibility of our elected officials includes ensuring that every person’s vote counts equally and we need to hold those who are attempting to dismantle our democracy accountable.

It’s up to us to continue working together to remove barriers to voting like the leaders who came before us courageously did. It’s up to us to protect real democracy – by the people and for the people.