On Thursday, we mark the 50th anniversary of the passage of one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history – the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Together with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public accommodations, the Voting Rights Act represented the high-water mark of the civil rights movement.
After the endless delays and injustices in the 100 years after the Civil War, the federal government finally fulfilled our nation’s founding belief that all people are created equal. By ensuring that no citizen could be denied the right to vote because of race, it did so in the most fundamental way.
Throughout his career in public life, my father, Robert F. Kennedy, was a vocal proponent of voting rights. As attorney general, his Justice Department brought 57 voting rights lawsuits against Southern municipalities; the previous administration had managed only six. He was instrumental in the drafting and passage of the Civil Rights Act, and he vigorously supported the Voting Rights Act as a senator from New York. He recognized the limits of voting legislation, but he didn’t think those limits invalidated the effort.
In 1962, he said: “The right to vote is basic to our system of government, and the history of the United States demonstrates that as minority groups have achieved the vote their lot has improved. Intolerance and prejudice have not disappeared, but when a minority has made itself felt at the ballot box, there has been greater opportunity for advancement, and discrimination has disappeared gradually.”
Few would claim that the Voting Rights Act ended discrimination in the United States – especially not today, in the aftermath of the killing of unarmed African Americans by police in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, Cincinnati and other cities.
But there is no denying that the law instantly made our country more just. In Mississippi, African-American voter registration leapt from 7 percent to 54 percent in just three years after the act’s passage. And the law’s reverberations continue to be felt. In the 2012 presidential elections – in which Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, was elected to a second term – black turnout was greater than white turnout for the first time, an astonishing reminder of how much progress we have made in civil rights.
Sadly, that progress is fragile.
Today, the hard-won gains of the Voting Rights Act are under particular pressure. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a central provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of discrimination to clear any changes to their voting laws, no matter how small, with the Department of Justice. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts admitted that voting discrimination remains a problem, but asserted that the progress made since 1965 rendered the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance measure unconstitutional.
The result was predictable. A number of states began passing laws that restricted access to the ballot box by requiring voters to present photo identification, a requirement that disproportionately affects poor and minority citizens. The Brennan Center for Justice called North Carolina’s law – which also shrinks the early voting period and eliminates same-day registration – “one of the most restrictive voting laws since the Jim Crow era.”
The officials championing these laws claim they are simply taking steps to prevent voter fraud. That sounds reasonable enough, but for one thing: Experts have repeatedly found voter fraud to be a negligible problem.
Since these laws have been passed exclusively by Republican legislatures, the only conclusion to draw is that the GOP is willing to trade civil rights for electoral advantage, since the low-income and minority voters disenfranchised by these laws tend to favor Democratic candidates.
Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, Americans often think of the civil rights movement as a struggle of the past. But the spate of cynical laws passed since 2013 – and the troubling events in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere – remind us that the fight for civil rights in our country is far from over.
Kerry Kennedy is president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.