Last week, I was honored to deliver the Congressional Black Caucus’ televised Message to America: Protecting our Progress at the Ballot Box. It was a message that deserves repeating again and again.
For more than four decades, the CBC has fought to protect and expand the right to vote for all Americans — and, this year, our advocacy is more essential than it has ever been.
With only days remaining until our nation elects its next President, it is critical that Americans of good conscience be aware of blatant attempts to deny our community — as well as the elderly and the young — access to the ballot box.
Thousands of African Americans marched, protested, fought and even died to ensure that every American would have a voice in our democracy.
Consider our past.
In the spring of 1965, one week after Congressman John Lewis and the people of Selma marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Lyndon Johnson urged the Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
“…All Americans just must have the right to vote,” President Johnson declared. “And we are going to give them that right.”
President Lyndon Johnson was right. The right to vote is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans. It ensures that we each have a voice in this democracy.
In the years after the Voting Rights Act was enacted, African Americans were finally able to fully and freely participate in our nation’s elections — and we’ve seen real change as a result.
African Americans were elected to serve and represent their communities at the state, local and national levels; and, decades later, we stood in gratitude and pride as Black Americans turned out to the polls in record numbers to elect our nation’s first African American president in 2008.
Four years later, we made history again. In 2012, for the first time in any U.S. presidential election, eligible African Americans voted at a higher rate than did Caucasian Americans — and President Obama won a second term.
This progress toward a fully equitable society was not easily won. Even in 2012, it required the combined power of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a reinvigorated Civil Rights Division in the United States Department of Justice, scores upon scores of advocacy groups, and the individual commitment to democracy by millions of our fellow citizens.
This was how progress was made. This was how our history was changed.
Then, in 2013, the forces of reaction struck back. By a slim 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder rolled back the federal government’s “preclearance” authority, the same federal power that had sustained and guaranteed access to the ballot box for African Americans.
In finding the formula at work in the Voting Rights Act to be out of date, the Supreme Court removed one of the most effective tools that the federal government has used to prevent states from passing or implementing laws that unfairly keep American citizens from their equal place at the ballot box.
Following the Shelby decision, Republican-controlled state governments nationwide grasped the opportunity to move America backward. They enacted some of the most egregious voter suppression legislation since Jim Crow.
In one of the most appalling examples, only weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision, the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature passed a voter suppression omnibus that restricted early voting; required voters to present photo identification at the polls; and eliminated same-day voter registration.
Thankfully, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recognized this law for what it was and struck it down, concluding that it “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Yet, while the court protected the rights of African Americans in North Carolina for this election, there are still new voter suppression laws on the books in 14 other states that will be in effect for the first time in a presidential election this fall. Voters in those 14 states will now face significant hurdles to exercising their most fundamental democratic right.
It is clear that we cannot rely solely on the courts. Congress must act — and each of us must act as well.
It is time for Speaker Paul Ryan to bring legislation to restore and update the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act to the House floor, legislation for which we know there is bipartisan support.
Here at home, and in other states throughout the country, we each must do everything that we can to assure that our neighbors and families have their voices recognized on Election Day 2016
As President Johnson told Members of Congress in 1965: “…all Americans just must have the right to vote.”
He was right then, and he is right today.
This challenge to our rightful place in American society is a critical factor in the 2016 election — an in the future that it is our right and duty to create.
We must protect our progress not just for ourselves, but for generations yet unborn.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.