History shows only a new Voting Rights Act can preserve our fragile democracy

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We are in the midst of a new chapter in which the civil, human and fundamental rights of African Americans are under attack. This isn’t hyperbole, but the reality of events happening before our very eyes. 

Despite all of the Beltway talk of a post-racial America and speeches reciting hopeful but incomplete quotes from Martin Luther King, students of history can recognize the blaring indications that a new nadir is underway. Passing a new Voting Rights Act is the only antidote to the dangerous days that lie ahead. 

The period after post-Civil War reconstruction is commonly referred to as the nadir. Prior to the nadir, many African Americans in the South saw improvements to their lives, such as access to education, the opportunity to run for elected office and the ability to purchase land. As poor whites and former plantation owners saw former slaves take control of their destiny, and in many cases, outperform those who not long before kept them in bondage, they pushed to roll back progress.

More than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Fortune 500 companies have hired Black CEOs, the small number of Black senators has increased and we’ve seen a black president and vice president. These milestones are nice, but not exactly laudable. Black Americans should have representation in Congress, we should have representation on Fortune 500 companies, we’re supposed to be successful. This is the greatest country in the world, isn’t it? Anyone is supposed to be able to make it if they try hard. (That’s a whole other column.) 

What we’re witnessing now looks like a rerun of what we witnessed between reconstruction and the nadir that the universe is praying we don’t ignore. As Blacks climbed the socioeconomic ladder in the 1870s, white legislators felt the simmering resentment from their constituents. So the legislators — the equivalent of modern-day Republicans — put laws in place to deprive African Americans of their right to vote and implemented policies to strip Black communities of economic opportunity and to concentrate extreme poverty.

These legislators terrorized Black communities using neighborhood groups that hunted down innocent Black men, using force as a tool for intimidation. The shift from the period of hope and change must have felt like another reminder of our nation’s inability to properly address its racial history. To most Americans, it should sound all too familiar.

Fast forward to the election of Barack Obama, our nation’s first Black president. That moment was met with attacks on his citizenship and the emboldening of insidious forces. The same threads of nationalism and jingoism that emerged in the Tea Party gave birth to the Freedom Caucus and rolled out the red carpet for red-state governors who speak like versions of Bull Connor that went to Harvard or Yale. 

It’s these current-day Republicans who refuse to renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They refuse to accept that the 2020 election was a fair and safe election. They refuse to look forward. They have one goal, much like their counterparts during the nadir; to roll back the clock. There is a guttural reaction to the changing socioeconomic and demographic makeup of this country that is manifesting a dangerous and anti-Democratic philosophy.

New election laws being passed across Southern states prior to the midterm and 2024 presidential elections basically say if you can’t win the game, change the rules. Raphael Warnock’s (D-Ga.) 2020 Senate victory, Democrat Stacey Abrams’ questionable 2018 loss in Georgia’s race for governor and Ron DeSantis’ (R-Fla.) razor-thin 2018 victory over Andrew Gillum were warning shots to Republicans. 

For a while, the times appeared to be changing. Prior to the Voting Rights Act, only an estimated 23 percent of voting-age Blacks were registered nationally, but by 1969 the number had jumped to 61 percent and by November 2020, 62.6 percent.

With Democratic control of Congress and the White House, codifying the Vote Rights Act appeared to be a question of when not if. Surely we would not make historically disenfranchised communities once again question the vulnerability of their most basic rights. Surely Democrats would find a way to protect the voting rights of their most consistent and ardent supporters. Given Donald Trump’s attempts to interfere with the counting of ballots in Southern states, his open desire to overturn the presidential election and the veiled coup attempt on Jan. 6., surely we could all acknowledge that our democracy is in cardiac arrest. 

But history has once again repeated itself. The rights of a minority are under attack by a scared and angry majority. It’s a recipe that almost always ends with increased subjugation and oppression for those without the ability to fully participate in our electoral politics. 

Some will say that passing a new voting rights bill unduly imposes upon Southern states, making them look racist for acts committed decades ago. They’ll point to Obama, a token person of color in their office, or a non-white friend that they don’t know isn’t really their friend as proof of progress. What they won’t do is acknowledge that many who tried to keep Ruby Bridges from being the first Black student to integrate into a white Southern school now hold jobs as lawyers, police officers and politicians. They hold the type of power and influence that kept interracial marriage illegal until my mother’s fourth birthday.  

New voter protection laws would be the most significant piece of legislation that President Biden would sign during his time in office. More so than the hugely popular COVID stimulus bill or the $1.6 trillion dollar infrastructure bill, only the Voting Rights Act can rebuild institutions at the swipe of a pen. Moreover, new legislation that strengthens our ability to have free and fair elections is a commonsense response to Trump’s attempted coup. 

Passing a new Voting Rights Act is the whole ballgame. It’s how we preserve our democracy. Succumbing to a new nadir is a choice, not a necessity. The most vital proposal before Congress today is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Without its passage, any future agenda items are left to the whims of the people attempting to erode the foundations of our democracy. Democrats must protect our future and learn from lessons of the past. 

Michael Starr Hopkins is a founding partner at Northern Starr Strategies. 

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Joe Biden John Lewis Raphael Warnock Ron DeSantis

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