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The Senate failed to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act because Republican senators won’t support the bills. Passing the bills by simple majority is not possible because Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema want to preserve a Jim Crow relic used to block the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
Disappointing but not surprising. The gridlock brings to mind a 1967 book by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. titled, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”
Why was King asking the question after major victories with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act? The book, which also talks about the journey to voting rights, provides a window into King’s frame of mind in that time period. King was concerned.
Five months before the historic voting rights law, the world watched in horror as John Lewis and other civil rights marchers were brutally attacked in Selma. In his speech to Congress after the attack, President Lyndon Johnson said: “In our system, the first and most vital of all our rights is the right to vote.” LBJ even repeated the civil rights motto, “We shall overcome.”
The violence in Selma catalyzed a willingness to act, and protecting the right to vote received overwhelming support in Congress. According to King, Aug. 6, the day LBJ signed the law, “the president’s room of the Capitol could scarcely hold the multitude” made up of white and Black people.
In what King calls “the first phase” of the civil rights era, white people joining Black people to demand that Southern states end brutality against African Americans was much needed. However, after the civil rights and voting rights laws were approved, white Americans who denounced inequality seemed convinced that equality was accomplished.
The result was dwindling white support, which led King to call out the “unpreparedness” in the white community to accept true brotherhood. “White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality … but it had never been truly committed to helping out of all forms of discrimination,” King wrote in his book.
The apathy by white moderates to stay true to the struggle for equality compromised the implementation of civil rights laws. Consequently, despite the success in the first phase, African Americans continued to experience racial discrimination. As we might imagine, the Black community became distressed because of promises not kept.
In the “second phase” of the struggle for equality, King remained true to nonviolence, yet the broken promises created more anger, the Black Power movement gained prominence and such activists as Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) challenged King’s philosophy. The 1965 Watts Riots and 1967 Detroit Riots were responses to lingering racial inequality and oppression.
According to King, the “Black Power voice” and riots resulted in white backlash — white people, especially from the West and North, further withdrew their support for civil rights.
“Why is equality so assiduously avoided?” King asked.
He answered his own question by pointing out that many white Americans believe they are good and care about equality, and that the “American society is hospitable to fair play.”
Yet that’s not always true.
The issue, if I may put it this way, is that there are “early birds who got the worm,” and “some late birds who are still not getting the worm.” The reason the latter are late is because the former prevented them from rising up early.
Let’s imagine that upward social mobility is a 100-yard dash. White, Black and Brown runners are in the race. The officials overseeing the race are white. White runners start at the 50-yard mark. Runners of color are held back at the 1-yard mark. At the end of the race, white runners jump in victory, and turn to the Black and Brown runners and say, “Why don’t you just run faster?”
Making it harder for people to vote keeps them in the back of the race.
In Alabama in 1964, the Black adult trying to register to vote would face many obstacles, such as being asked to recite the Constitution before getting a ballot.
Today, the “officials” still use laws to create voting obstacles.
U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2013 and 2021 weakened the Voting Rights Act, opening the door for states with a history of racial discrimination to change election rules. That can have a disproportionate impact on people of color. Since the 2020 election, Republican legislators in at least 19 states have also passed laws restricting voting.
What must we do?
We call our representatives and demand action. We hold them accountable with our vote. We continue to show up to vote.
We show up before dawn. We wait even until dusk. We vote like it’s our last chance to choose community over chaos.
Walter Suza of Ames writes frequently on the intersections of spirituality, anti-racism and social justice. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Ames Tribune: Opinion: 'We shall overcome' vote restrictions and Congress' failures