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Ben Jealous on Black History Month and protecting voting rights

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Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way, joined CBSN to discuss the significance of Black History Month and the "For the People Act" to protect voting rights.

Video Transcript

- It's the last week of Black History Month, and we are continuing to celebrate the achievements and history made by African-Americans. In this past year, the Black Lives Matter movement drew even more attention with mass protests of police violence and calls to end systemic racism in our society. It is now considered one of the largest movements in US history.

For more on this, I want to bring in Ben Jealous. He is the president of People for the American Way, as well as the former president of the NAACP. Ben, good to see you. So, in 2021, what does Black History Month mean to you, to all of us as Americans, where we've been able to see this historic activism in the past year, as well as the nation's first Black vice president, Black South Asian vice president, just to name a few.

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, and the first female vice president.

- Mm.

BEN JEALOUS: Black History Month is a time to recommit to making more history, to moving our country forward, to doing what it takes to actually make our nation the multiracial democracy that we've always sought to be. On the back of our money, it says, out of many one, e pluribus unum. And that's ultimately what's at the heart of Black History Month, is our people's commitment to really turning this into one nation.

- You're right, there's a lot left to be done. What would you like see to be-- what would you like to see accomplished? And what are you looking for from this new administration?

BEN JEALOUS: Job one has to be to make sure that all of our votes count, and frankly, that we get to a place where the national popular vote actually determines the outcome of our presidential elections. Right now, we are seeing waves of voter suppression across 33 states, 165 bills being pushed, and many of them really pointed at suppressing the Black vote in Georgia, where the governor made a name for himself suppressing the Black vote when he was Secretary of State there, even seeking to take away voting on Sundays, knowing that disproportionately, it's Black churches that turn out to vote on Sundays.

- And so, you've-- with regards to voter suppression, you've written a lot about it, and you're calling for the For the People Act to be signed. Explain to our audience what that is and why it's so critical.

BEN JEALOUS: This act really was the big thing that John Lewis was fighting for at the end of his life. It gets money out of politics. It protects voters in every state from the type of chicanery that Governor Kemp in Georgia is pushing, and for that matter, folks in his party in 32 other states. People in our country-- at 75%, the people of our country support what's in this bill. And that's what I think is important not to lose sight of, that you can have politicians who are way out there, seeking to suppress the vote.

But most people in this country just want to know that their neighbor will be able to vote fairly, that the corporation won't be able to buy the election, and that their vote will count. And fundamentally, that's what For the People Act is about. And unfortunately, it's urgent because the Voting Rights Act was gutted almost 10 years ago.

- Ben, finally, what was your impression as you watched the former president of the United States attack our election integrity, and specifically, attack election integrity in states and in cities with predominantly large African-American communities? You have heard over and over from the former president, you know, that 75 million people voted for him and that their voices were not being heard when, in fact, it's only 74 million, without ever mentioning the 81 million that voted for President Biden. What was your reaction to all of that language that was used by the former president and some of his supporters?

BEN JEALOUS: My fear was, frankly, that it would head where it headed. What we saw as a result of President Trump's protestations, of his threats, of his calling for violence, was that violence happened. Violence happened in rallies over the summer, and then violence happened at the US Capitol-- five people killed, officers maimed, dozens of officers-- I think about 70 of them-- injured, 125 officers assaulted.

And the bully pulpit of the presidency, we can never afford to forget, is really the most powerful perch in our country. And for the President of the United States to lie, to twist, to call for violence, frankly, it brought me back to a much darker time long ago in our history, where we saw coups in places like Wilmington, North Carolina, Danville, Virginia, where white mobs attacked multiracial government at the end of Reconstruction to re-establish white rule.

And this president, similarly, is acting from a place of vanity and desperation, calling for violence because democracy isn't enough for him. And it was shameful, and it was dangerous. And frankly, a lot of people and a lot of officers paid a very severe price for it.

- Mm. Ben Jealous, always great to have you. Thank you, my friend.

BEN JEALOUS: Thank you.