Voting Rights: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

By Sabrina Völz

Pho­to cred­it: There­sa Thompson

After yet anoth­er elec­tion sea­son with a num­ber of glitch­es, the prob­lems with America’s vot­ing sys­tem have been all over the news once again. Will the fuss die down after a few months like it has in past elec­tions? Some­how I don’t think it will. In recent months, it has become increas­ing­ly evi­dent that some of the same rights that were fought for and won dur­ing the Civ­il Rights Move­ment of the 1950s and ‘60s have come under fire. The move­ment, once con­sid­ered a done deal, has recent­ly gained new urgency.

Motion pic­tures, such as Lee Daniels’ The But­ler  and Ava DuVernay’s Sel­ma, have brought that long, dif­fi­cult strug­gle to new gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans and peo­ple around the world. Some­times media rep­re­sen­ta­tions speak loud­er than words. Dur­ing one grip­ping scene in The But­ler, for exam­ple, authen­tic black and white pho­tographs of a mob attack on a free­dom rid­ers’ bus in Annis­ton, Alaba­ma, in May 1961, alter­nate with dra­mat­ic reen­act­ments: fire bombs, scream­ing free­dom rid­ers, chaos, and crowds of whites spew­ing their ver­bal hatred galore. On the 25th anniver­sary of the 1961 free­dom rides, Oprah Win­frey inter­viewed sur­vivors of that ter­ri­fy­ing act of racism. Mem­o­ries of that trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ence still bring tears to the eyes of sur­vivors and witnesses.

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Sim­i­lar­ly, the 1963 bomb­ing of the 16th Street Bap­tist Church in Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma, killing four young girls, is engraved into the minds of spec­ta­tors dur­ing the first few min­utes of Sel­ma. The rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the chat­ty, gig­gling girls in their bright­ly col­ored, per­fect­ly pressed Sun­day dress­es blown to smithereens by KKK bombs cer­tain­ly has left a last­ing impres­sion on me. These his­to­ry-ori­ent­ed Hol­ly­wood films and box office suc­cess­es that per­son­al­ize and emo­tion­al­ize trou­bling his­tor­i­cal events may have even affect­ed Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma. Dur­ing the last weeks of his pres­i­den­cy, Oba­ma – with bipar­ti­san sup­port – des­ig­nat­ed new South­ern Civ­il Rights memo­ri­als that com­mem­o­rate the two events men­tioned above. These events – along with many oth­ers – brought the racism and vio­lence of the Jim Crow South into the liv­ing rooms across the Unit­ed States in the ‘60s.

Remem­ber­ing and memo­ri­al­iz­ing the Civ­il Rights Move­ment and its great lead­ers is impor­tant, and both The But­ler and Sel­ma serve that pur­pose. How­ev­er, watch­ing movies alone will not ensure that the fun­da­men­tal rights won in the ‘60s will sur­vive new assaults from the Right. The time for action is now! “Glo­ry,” Sel­ma’s Oscar-win­ning title song per­formed by John Leg­end and Com­mon, is unmis­tak­ably a ral­ly­ing cry.

While progress, for exam­ple, has been made in over­turn­ing some vot­ing restric­tions, 33 states now have passed laws requir­ing the show­ing of pre-approved forms of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion at polling places in addi­tion to vot­er reg­is­tra­tion cards. In 2012, only 4 states required such iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. As we all know, offices that issue driver’s licens­es and ID cards are often nei­ther cen­tral­ly locat­ed, nor are they always easy to access with pub­lic trans­porta­tion. And it is sad to say, but some peo­ple sim­ply can’t afford the extra expense.

In 2015, on the 50th anniver­sary of the vot­ing rights cam­paign in Sel­ma, the son of Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., encour­aged peo­ple not to idol­ize his father but to embrace his ideals. In his com­mem­o­ra­tive speech giv­en on that occa­sion, Mar­tin Luther King III pro­vides sev­er­al sug­ges­tions for improv­ing the flawed vot­ing sys­tem, one of which is to put a pho­to on social secu­ri­ty cards to make it eas­i­er for vot­ers to prove their iden­ti­ty at polling places. Let’s all sup­port that idea!

Vot­ing rights: yes­ter­day, today, and tomor­row – let’s not take them for granted.

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