On July 2nd, our nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of a major achievement in the ongoing fight for social justice. On that day in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation that permanently changed the trajectory of millions of destinies for people of color, women, and Americans of different religious and national origins.
In those 50 years, we’ve made vast advancement toward becoming a nation that truly offers liberty, justice, and opportunity for all. Yet, recently, we’ve also witnessed reactionary setbacks that must motivate a new generation to fight for equality and opportunity.
The Civil Rights act itself was a spark of hope for millions of Americans who had long been oppressed – and for whom the core values of our nation were beyond reach. For those Americans of my youth, the simple, yet basic, idea of voting for the representative of their choice had been unfathomable.
The idea of attending a school where the faces of children were not all the same – a school in which resources were shared fairly regardless of race – was unimaginable. The idea of employment where promotion was based purely on merit – and not restricted to some – was inconceivable. These were the burdens of the legally enforced segregation in my youth – the inequities that the 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted to vanquish from our society.
This assertion of truly American values ignited the spark of action for further reform aimed at righting years of systemic racial discrimination. President Johnson would issue an executive order banning government contractors from discriminating in employment decisions and requiring them to take “affirmative action” to be inclusive of all employees – and the Congress would enact further reforms through the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
In one of the most profound civil rights victories of that era, Congress would pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, providing federal oversight of elections in those states that had purposefully excluded minorities through racially drawn district lines, poll taxes, and literacy tests.
These laws, and the movement that pushed for their enactment, have brought us closer to an America in which a person’s racial heritage or gender are no longer disqualifiers – toward an America in which diversity is viewed by most of us as our nation’s promise, not our problem. Yet, for all our progress, reactionary forces remain. Without vigilance and courage, we risk stumbling backward – as we did one year ago with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder.
On June 25th of last year, a slim majority of our nation’s highest court ruled unconstitutional Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, the coverage provision requiring jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practice to obtain prior federal approval for voting and redistricting changes. Since then, mostly-southern state legislatures previously restrained by the law have been unleashed to pass wave-after-wave of legislation that limit access to voting – in most instances with disproportionate impact on communities of color. At times, in fact, these undemocratic measures have been passed with the expressly stated intention of reducing access to the ballot box for our communities.
North Carolina carries the dubious distinction of having passed the most repressive law in the nation, enacted just a few weeks after the Shelby ruling. Like it’s many counterparts, the North Carolina legislature claimed it was attempting to fight back against “voter fraud” by imposing arduous photo identification requirements, shortening the early voting period in the state by a full week, ending out-of-precinct voting in statewide races, and eliminating same-day registration and pre-registration of new voters under the age of 18.
Multiple studies have shown that voter fraud is virtually non-existent in our nation. In an investigation by the Kansas Secretary of State, examining 84 million votes cast in 22 states seeking duplicate registrants, only 14 cases were referred for prosecution (0.00000017 percent of the votes cast).
These reactionary laws are clear acts of voter suppression targeted at progressive Americans. For example, 70 percent of African Americans who voted in 2012 used early voting. This is why it is so imperative that the Congress promptly take action to restore the full strength of the Voting Rights Act by updating the formula to meet the new requirements that the Supreme Court’s narrow majority has imposed.
Anniversaries are important points of reflection, and this historic moment should be no different. Our reflection upon our nation’s past – and our shared future – must motivate all of us to action.
The battle for the Civil Rights Act was hard fought in the 1960s. Yet, the struggle for full equality and inclusion continues. We must honor the more just legacy that we received from that generation with more than ceremonies. We must restore the Voting Rights Act and inspire our emerging multi-racial majority to create its own legacy of liberty, justice, and opportunity for all.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.