One of the greatest weeks in progressive political history started on July 30, 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Medicare and Medicaid bills into law. It ended on Aug. 6, when LBJ penned his signature on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an act that he described as “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory won on any battlefield.”
We should take a moment to remember that wonderful week, 49 years ago. Progressive victories like those do not come along very often.
Our victories did not start in LBJ’s White House, of course. You could say that we began to walk the freedom road toward the Voting Rights Act on the day that Rosa Parks sat down on the bus in Montgomery, Ala., and refused to give it up. Or you could point to the day in Greensboro over half a century ago, when four brave North Carolina A&T students sat down at the lunch counter, and refused to move. Or you could give great credit to Dr. King.
I described that outside/inside process in my 1996 speech to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago:
“Desegregated public accommodations came from Greensboro and Birmingham, from the sit-ins and marches and street heat. From we, the people, in motion. . . . We won voting rights on the bridge at Selma. We, the people, provided the answer.”
Those progressive landmarks are now under attack. Conservatives have never liked Medicare or Medicaid. (Conservative icon Ronald Reagan derided Medicare as “socialized medicine” years before he was even elected governor of California.)
Nor have right-wingers ever liked the Voting Rights Act. The neo-Confederate wing of the GOP in particular has always chafed under federal supervision of its (often unfair) voting procedures. But public sentiment in favor of expanded voting since Dr. King’s death has remained strong enough to withstand most of their attacks.
Then came the backlash election of 2010, when Tea Party voters who claimed to be upset about the deficit — a deficit brought on by President George W. Bush, but ignored until the first African-American president took office — turned out in big numbers and moved the House of Representatives and many state legislatures solidly to the right.
However, this tea party is not a Boston Tea Party, the kind that launched the American Revolution — this is a Fort Sumter tea party, a nullification tea party, a states’ rights tea party.
This led to an immediate attack on the voting rights gains we made 49 years ago, with a rollback of voting rights in dozens of GOP-controlled statehouses across the nation, including cutbacks on early voting, and increased requirements for voter verification using ID cards that far too many poor and minority voters do not have.
On top of that, progressives were hit hard by the most ideological, corporate, activist and conservative Supreme Court in modern times — a court that last year gutted the Voting Rights Act, by only a 5-4 margin.
We, the people, need to get back in motion. We, the people, need to provide an answer to this attack.
Civil rights groups are working hard right now to try to salvage a compromise that can keep the Voting Rights Act in play, but given the electoral benefits that the GOP reaps from unfair voting laws, our immediate chances to retain a fair, unbiased voting system all across the country are not great.
We need a guaranteed right to vote. And to counteract our states’ rights system of voting, with a different set of restrictions in each of the 50 states plus D.C., we need a federal voting system. We need one set of rules for everyone, with a level playing field for all voters everywhere, North and South, urban and rural.
We need a solution that galvanizes voters, that helps us mobilize to push back against those who would weaken civil rights and voting rights. At the National Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, we are organizing support for HJRes 44, a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to vote, introduced by Rep. Mark Pocan and Rep. Keith Ellison. (To find out more about HJRes 44, go here.)
This is a long-term fight, but since the right to vote is held up as one of the greatest things about being an American, it should be a fight we can mobilize around, build a large and strong grassroots movement, and eventually win. Keep hope alive!
Jesse Jackson founded Rainbow/PUSH.