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MARCH ON! The Unfinished Work of Justice on the 52nd Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

The freedom to exercise our speech, through the right to vote, is the cornerstone of any democracy. This freedom ensures that the people are heard and represented in a nation’s critical decisions. In the United States, the right to vote has been awarded to minorities, but only after centuries of hard fought and tumultuous battles rooted in racism. These battles have propelled our nation forward in its promise to uphold the hopeful phrase enshrined in the Constitution: “in Order to form a more perfect Union.” Despite this promise, in recent years we have witnessed the relentless attacks on access to the ballot box; this stifles the ability of minorities to gain representation. These attacks include but are not limited to discriminatory voting laws implemented at the state and local levels that have hindered the ability of many minorities and other less privileged populations from exercising their right to vote. As we honor and celebrate the 52nd anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) on August 6, we must remember what is still at stake today when many citizens of this nation continue to be stripped of access to exercise their right vote.

My name is Demir Moore and I am the Summer 2017 Public Policy Intern for the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), the nation’s leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS. As a summer intern at NBJC, I have been able to see the value of public policy and democratic institutions which ensure the most left behind and marginalized people have a voice in our nation.  As such, on this VRA Anniversary I honor the sacrifices of everyday men and women who did an extraordinary thing by standing for the change that our communities so desperately needed despite ruthless opposition. As a proud Black American born generations after the passage of the VRA, I am still able to recognize that our rights, as citizens of these United States and as human beings, are still under attack.

The VRA, signed into law by former President Lyndon B. Johnson, was an important milestone for our nations most disenfranchised populations. This act solidified a win for minority communities throughout the United States, but this is somewhat of a solemn victory as we know that the war is far from over. The restrictive voting laws passed in recent years were fueled by a consequential 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, that gutted key provisions of the VRA in a 5-4 decision. The majority in this decision claimed that the law was outdated and in need of revision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts requested that Congress address the outdated Jim Crow era formula; a formula which defined which states needed preclearance to enact changes to their voting rights laws. This decision opened the flood gates to wide spread laws regulating voter’s rights which continues to drive discrimination in access to the voting booth. According to an assessment conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice, as of 2016 there were 14 states with new restrictions on who can vote. Originally there were 17 states with discriminatory restrictions on voter rights, but Georgia, North Carolina, and North Dakota’s bills were blocked by the courts.

Though our courts have blocked three of the 17 states from implementing discriminatory voting laws, we must still, keep fighting for access. The ability to vote and actively participate in our democracy is not just selecting a candidate; it is selecting a candidate who will represent you and your community’s values. It is thanks to the VRA that people of color, and other historically disenfranchised people, receive representation where it matters. However, in the wake of the gutting of the VRA and passage of these discriminatory voting laws, we must recognize that our constitutional rights are still threatened and we have a duty to demand our elected officials do all that they can to stop the continued passage of laws that halt our full representation.

One must not become complacent in a society of injustice. For Black communities and other historically marginalized communities, we must collectively advocate for resources, such as the US Census, to ensure that our votes count, that WE count. In our ever-fluctuating political climate nothing is absolute, but of things that should be is obtaining a complete Census with data that reflects the actual population.

A Politico article from earlier this year reported that the Trump Administration’s attacks on immigrants and minority groups have caused many to fear reporting to the Census Bureau. This causes many problems as the Census is the system in which the United States has used every decade since 1790 to create congressional districts and make decisions on government resources. If people are not reporting to the Census, they become susceptible to adversity in housing and employment among others because they are not represented in data and therefore are not fully a part of the paramount decisions our government is making with tax-payer money.  

In addition to this serious problem, the current funding for the operation of the Census is vastly underfunded by the Trump Administration. Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office forecasted that the 2020 Census is one government project at “high risk” of failure and in need of transformative change. This classification is due to lack of a clear budget and access to technology needed to obtain a full count of our nation’s population, including the most hard-to-reach populations, such as poor people who move frequently or people of color and immigrant families fearful of government authorities. Historically, the federal government has spent billions of dollars tracking down these type of populations, eventually sending human enumerators into the field to follow up with those who do not respond. But without a definitive and robust budget, the Census will not be able to ensure a complete count, which means representation of the most disadvantaged in our nation may be vulnerable.

As our nation pauses to celebrate the progress we have made because of the Voting Rights Act, we must also use this day to recommit to the cause of justice. In our democracy, major ways to support this cause are by ensuring that every American has a voice in their government, a vote at the ballot box, and are counted in impactful government surveys like the Census. We must show how our voices and votes matter by electing representatives that will take up these causes and continue to move our nation closer to a more equal and equitable land

Former President Barak Obama once said, “Even when folks are hitting you over the head, you can't stop marching. Even when they're turning the hoses on you, you can't stop.” These words harken back to a time when our communities were daily putting their lives on the line. People of all races and backgrounds marched to see the day when we all would have access to the sacred ballot box. This legacy of resilience, perseverance and hope continues to guide us in the present moment as a new generation demonstrates the power of the people in the streets. This push to breakdown a system meant to dehumanize, disenfranchise, and even kill Black people and anyone considered different is core to the unfinished work of our movement for justice. As such in the pursuit of justice it is our duty to March On!

The National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) is a civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS.