Commentary: Dr. King and the Fight for Voting Rights

Commentary: Dr. King and the Fight for Voting Rights

If we are to continue building the greater and more unified nation that Martin Luther King envisioned, our democracy must be protected by a robust Voting Rights Act.

Published January 15, 2014

As we mark the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this year we must embrace Dr. King’s adage and repair the cracks in the foundation stone created by the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder.

Some may have already forgotten that last June the Supreme Court invalidated Section 4b of the Voting Rights Act, a provision that helped identify states with a history or contemporary record of voter discrimination. In conjunction with Section 5, the Act required that those states receive pre-approval before changing election laws. Without these sections of the Voting Rights Act, voters in multiple states, counties and other jurisdictions are at greater risk of discrimination at the polls.

Indeed in some districts formerly protected by the Voting Rights Act, we are already seeing efforts to reinstate laws previously struck down by the Act and introduce new laws that impact election administration at the local level. Localities in Georgia have gone so far as to remove polling locations, and even attempted to place one at a police precinct in a move that could be viewed as intimidating.

Without question, the Supreme Court’s decision cracked the foundation that we built to protect voters from discrimination. But we must take this opportunity to seize the moment and not only fill in those cracks in the foundation but also reinforce it so we will have a stronger foundation for the future.

It is time for Congress to act urgently, and with bipartisanship, to update the Voting Rights Act to ensure all citizens, no matter their race, gender or social status, have equal and unfettered access to the ballot box.

Some may doubt that a complacent Congress in an election year will be able to tackle such a high profile issue. But history shows us it can be done. In 2006, an election year, both political parties came together and the Voting Rights Act was almost unanimously reauthorized.

But we are not only relying on history to ensure the success of this effort. We are also embracing a revitalized social justice movement that, in the spirit of Dr. King and many others in the civil rights movement, is bringing people together to demand change. 

This movement united the people of New York City to demand an end to its stop-and-frisk racial profiling program. This social justice movement brought together stakeholders from the Broward County Public School System, law enforcement, the judicial branch and community partners to begin closing the school-to-prison pipeline in Florida. And this movement has fueled the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina, and now Georgia, where people from all walks of life are standing shoulder to shoulder to turn back attacks on workers’ rights, education rights, environmental rights and civil rights.

I believe this movement can and will help secure passage of commonsense updates to the Voting Rights Act by Congress.

Voting is a cornerstone of our ability to engage in this democracy and our country. If we are to continue building the greater and more unified nation that Dr. King envisioned, our democracy must be protected by a robust Voting Rights Act.

Lorraine C. Miller is the interim president and CEO of the NAACP.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Richard Sheinwald /Landov)

Written by Lorraine C. Miller


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