Last weekend, as I introduced President Barack Obama on the steps of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, I was overcome with emotions. Of course, I reflected on how far we have come over the past 50 years. But one thought could not escape my mind: Those who fight to make it harder to vote don’t know what it’s like to be kicked, clubbed and beaten for the simple right to cast a ballot.
But I do.
Fifty years ago, I, with 600 nonviolent protesters, marched on Selma to protest voting discrimination and the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil-rights activist who had been beaten and shot by Alabama state troopers a month earlier. We were met with armed police, tear gas, bullwhips and billy clubs. But we fought on and forced our nation to stare its soul in the mirror.
One week later, President Lyndon Johnson declared before a joint session of Congress that if our nation were to truly live up to its promise as a land of equal opportunity, we must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
Five months later, we passed the Voting Rights Act, which targeted practices aimed at keeping blacks from voting.
On the day it passed, I would have been in utter disbelief to know that in 2015, the VRA still would be a point of debate. But in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted key aspects of the law. In the weeks that followed, Republicans in statehouses across the country quickly passed laws making it harder to vote. In Texas, the Republican attorney general announced immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision that a law blocked in 2012 because it was found to burden the poor and communities of color would go into effect. In North Carolina, the legislature pulled back early voting. In fact, since 2011, half of the states have passed legislation to make voting harder.
Couched in language about “protecting the ballot box,” Republicans have pushed voter-ID laws that disproportionately impact certain blocks of voters — African-Americans, women, Latinos, the poor and young people — who tend to vote against them.
We should not mince words: These are poll taxes by another name, the very types of discrimination we marched against 50 years ago.
I began working on this issue when I was a student, and I can tell you that this voter discrimination is not targeted at just anyone — if you’re a young person, it’s targeted directly at you. You need not look any farther than Texas, where a gun license is valid identification, but a student ID is not. And according to one study, even in states without ID requirements, nearly two-thirds of young, black voters were asked for ID, compared to just under 43 percent of young white voters.
I bring these grim numbers to your attention not to discourage you, but to challenge you. A new generation of activists has made it clear that the unfinished work of Selma, of Birmingham and of Greensboro will continue today in Ferguson, New York and Cleveland. We raise our voices to say that we will not allow our progress to be rolled back, that we know the unavoidable truth that black lives matter.
We have never solved a problem in this country with less democracy, and so the persistent efforts from some in political power to restrict the right to vote should be calls to action.
Lewis has represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District around Atlanta since 1987. This column was distributed by the Demoractic National Committee series called “Pass the Mic” that it says is to spark conversations.