Discover more from Letters from an American
August 25, 2023
Tomorrow, civil rights activists will gather at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., both to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and to emphasize that the struggle for civil rights is ongoing.
Monday, August 28, is the actual anniversary of the 1963 march, which is famous today primarily because it was the occasion when the final speaker, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered what became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.
While that speech is often excerpted to sound like King’s concerns were simply about the way individuals thought about race, in fact, the march’s organizers, Black labor leader A. Philip Randolph and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, focused on economic discrimination and the lack of decent jobs for Black Americans. In the process of organizing the march, they brought on board not only civil rights organizers but also white labor organizer Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers.
King acknowledged the economic focus of the march when he centered his speech around the idea that Black Americans had received “a promissory note” that had become “a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.” “But,” he said, “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
Dr. King was not the only speaker that day; he anchored the event. Before him spoke the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a young John Lewis. Just 23 years old, he had been one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders, white and black students traveling together from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans in 1961 to challenge segregation. “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,” Lewis later recalled.
At the Washington march, Lewis railed against the systems that kept Black Americans in poverty and permitted white men to commit violence against them, and explained that the remedy for the economic deprivation and racial violence Black Americans suffered was not in the civil rights bill proposed by the administration of President John F. Kennedy, but in the power of peaceful demonstrations and the vote. “‘ONE MAN, ONE VOTE’...must be our [cry],” he told the crowd.
“The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery,” Lewis said. “The nonviolent revolution is saying, ‘We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the president, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure, that could and would assure us a victory.’”
The March on Washington gave national media coverage to the civil rights movement, and it, along with the assassination of President Kennedy less than three months later and the disappearance of three young men registering Black Americans to vote in Mississippi in 1964, gave momentum to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination and protected voting rights.
Americans determined to bring that law to life set out to increase the voting registration efforts they had been making for years. Near Selma, Alabama, in February 1965, white law enforcement officers beat and shot an unarmed 26-year-old, Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was marching for voting rights. He died eight days later.
Black leaders in Selma planned to march the 54 miles from Selma to the state capitol at Montgomery to draw attention to the murder and to voter suppression. As Lewis and 600 marchers stopped to pray at the end of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate brigadier general, grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and U.S. senator, mounted police troopers charged them with clubs and bullwhips. They fractured Lewis’s skull.
After the Selma attack, President Lyndon Baines Johnson called for Congress to pass a national voting rights bill. By a bipartisan vote, it did so, and on August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act authorizing federal supervision of voter registration in districts where African Americans were historically underrepresented.
The federal protection of minority voting was a game changer, and and opponents fought it. Since Reconstruction, reactionary racists had maintained that Black voters would elect lawmakers who would give them benefits that could only be paid for through tax levies on those with property, which generally meant white men. Black voting, they insisted, would lead to a redistribution of wealth and thus was essentially socialism.
As the Democratic Party under Johnson moved away from its historic racism, those who insisted that Black voting was socialism and segregation should be the law of the land began to swing behind the Republicans, whose opposition to government regulation of business and provision of a basic social safety net made them take a stand against a powerful federal government.
Once entrenched in the Republican Party, the idea that minority voting meant a redistribution of wealth led party leaders both to whittle away at federal power and to insist that Black and Brown voters were illegitimate. By 1986, Republicans talked of cutting down Black voting with a “ballot integrity” initiative, and they bitterly opposed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, more popularly known as the Motor-Voter Act, which Democrats passed to make it easier to register to vote at certain state offices. The following year, losing Republican candidates argued they had lost because of “voter fraud,” and in 1996, House and Senate Republicans launched yearlong investigations into elections that they insisted, without evidence, Democrats had stolen thanks to illegal voters.
By 2013 the quest to purge minority voters led to the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision gutting the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required the Department of Justice to sign off on changes to voting in states with histories of racial discrimination.
Ultimately, in late 2020, Republicans led by then-incumbent president Donald Trump organized to deprive Americans, overwhelmingly minority Americans in places like Fulton County, Georgia, and Detroit, of their vote. As the federal indictment for his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election reads, he and his co-conspirators tried “to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate one or more persons in the free exercise and enjoyment of a right and privilege secured to them by the Constitution and laws of the United States—that is, the right to vote, and to have one’s vote counted.”
As civil rights leaders gather in Washington, D.C., today, they hope to emphasize that voting rights remain central to racial and economic equality. According to the voting-rights-focused Brennan Center, since 2013, 29 states have added 94 restrictions on the right to vote, and now House Republicans have proposed what they call the “American Confidence in Elections” Act, or ACE, which limits mail-in ballots and drop boxes, prohibits taking food and water to those waiting in line to vote, lifts remaining restrictions on campaign spending, and abolishes federal efforts to combat disinformation. Although Republicans point to increased voting in 2022 to insist that such measures don’t hurt voting rates, the Brennan Center showed that under Georgia’s new rules, the gap between white voting and nonwhite voting is the highest it’s been since at least 2014: white voting was 8.6 percentage points higher than nonwhite voting in 2022.
In contrast, Senate Democrats have reintroduced the Freedom to Vote Act, which sets national standards to protect voting access, protects election officials and workers (who have experienced attacks since 2020), prohibits partisan gerrymandering, and cuts back on the dark money that floods our elections since the Supreme Court permitted it in its 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) decision. When the House passed a version of the Freedom to Vote Act in 2021, every Republican in the Senate voted it down.
And yet, the Freedom to Vote Act is popular, with a supermajority of likely voters—70%— supporting its provisions shortly after it was first introduced in 2021. Protecting the vote is a cause behind which the Biden administration, particularly Vice President Kamala Harris, stands.
In 2022, speaking in the Georgia district that elected John Lewis to Congress, Harris warned that we must not be deceived into thinking laws that make it harder to vote are normal, and she noted that those pushing such laws “are not only putting in place obstacles to the ballot box, they are also working to interfere with our elections to get the outcomes they want and to discredit those they don’t. That is not how a democracy should work.”
At tomorrow’s march, the Reverend Dr. King’s son Martin Luther King III and his wife Arndrea Waters King say they plan to call on Congress to pass voting rights legislation. “This is not about issues for one group or one ethnic group,” Mr. King said. “It’s about Americans. It’s about creating a climate for America to fulfill its true promise for all of its citizens.”