Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spent a relatively short time in the public sphere. Just 13 years passed from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to his death at an assassin’s hand in 1968.
In that short time, Dr. King took on some of the most urgent social justice issues of the time. His advocacy included the work that was necessary to enforce Supreme Court decisions ending segregation. He advocated for economic justice for people living in poverty, which became the Poor People’s Campaign. He challenged the militarism of the war in Vietnam, which irritated the political and media establishment but which was proven right by history.
It’s not really possible to rank these issues in any order of importance. What we can say, however, is that the work of Dr. King and his civil rights compatriots to truly secure the right to vote for all adult Americans was a crowning achievement. That work reached its peak with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The VRA ended the legacy of Jim Crow election laws and made real the promise of the 15th Amendment.
I’m not the first person to say this, but it bears repeating: It was not until the passage of the VRA that the United States began to resemble the democracy it proclaimed itself to be. Democracy existed for some, for those who had the privilege of having a say in who governed. But Black Americans effectively lived in an apartheid state. From the arrival of the first enslaved people in 1619 to the court decisions and legislative achievements of the 1950s and ‘60s, Black Americans were largely shut out of public life, from government and democratic participation to most parts of the economy. (Of course, our ancestors’ free labor built the Southern economy, which was interconnected to the economy of the entire country, but they received no compensation and had no freedom.) Again, an apartheid state.
With the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Dr. King and the civil rights movement forced the United States to live up to the ideals that were professed on paper but were elusive in reality.
Today, that 57-year experiment in true, multiracial democracy is in serious jeopardy.
It started with the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to overturn a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. That section required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to obtain approval from the Department of Justice before amending their election laws.
Not surprisingly, in the immediate aftermath of that decision, numerous states altered their election laws to restrict the right to vote. They cynically targeted practices most often used by Black voters, like early voting on Sundays; “souls to the polls,” for example, is a popular practice among Black churchgoers who go vote together after attending Sunday services. Polling places in Black districts were closed and moved to locations that were more difficult to access. And legislators passed a new round of voter ID laws, knowing that Black Americans are less likely to have the forms of identification required by these laws.
It also bears noting that this backlash to the right to vote came on the heels of the election of America’s first Black president.
Still, Black folks overcame, as we always do, and got ourselves to the polls in 2020. Indeed, Black Americans had a major influence on election outcomes all over the country, and we led the “count every vote” effort in the immediate aftermath of the general election.
Predictably, those efforts were met with backlash. Restrictions are no longer enough for some state lawmakers and members of Congress. Even after the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, lawmakers are now taking aim at the very heart of democracy, floating the idea that state legislators can select presidential electors to the Electoral College, even if the electors they choose support the candidate who lost the statewide popular vote. This proposal flies in the face of nearly 140 years of election law that recognizes a state’s popular vote winner as the winner of the state’s presidential electors.
Here in Pennsylvania, some state lawmakers are likewise teeing up manufactured justification for voting restrictions. Their primary vehicle is a sham election review undertaken by the Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee, a committee that has no history or expertise in election administration. The Republican members of the committee voted last year to subpoena the personally identifying information of all nine million registered voters in the commonwealth, including names, addresses, dates of birth, driver’s license numbers, and partial Social Security numbers. The committee chairman has stated his intention to investigate individual voters, which is a clear attempt at voter intimidation.
Senate GOP leaders have launched this fishing expedition despite a mandated, statistically accurate recount by every county after the 2020 election, a pilot program risk-limiting audit run by the Department of State with 63 counties to confirm the results, and numerous hearings about the election before the House and Senate State Government Committees in the first half of last year.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania is challenging the constitutionality of those subpoenas in court, representing eight individual voters and three advocacy groups - Make The Road Pennsylvania, the League of Women Voters of Pa., and Common Cause Pa.
Enforcing election law is best left to local district attorneys, not state senators with a political ax to grind.
Progress is not linear, and Dr. King’s legacy needs to be protected from the forces of backlash politics, which risk dragging us into authoritarianism. In 2022 and the years ahead, the ACLU of Pennsylvania will do everything we can to defend democracy, for every voter. That’s the best way to honor Dr. King, today and every day.