Rep. John Lewis: 'Make Some Noise' on New Voting Restrictions
AUG 26 2012
The civil rights icon issues a call—
"All of us should be up on our feet"—to protest partisan voting restrictions this election season.
"...And I stood up and said, I don't understand it. I don't understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote. And the next thing I realized, I had been admitted to the Good Samaritan Hospital, a short distance away. There were 17 other people who had been hurt."
–Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), on NPR in 2010, marking the 45th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
If there is an American alive today who is well suited to evaluate the partisan push for new restrictive voting laws this election cycle, it is Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who put his skull where his heart and mind were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge all those years ago...
When young John Lewis marched that day, he was marching for the rights of blacks to register to vote. And it would take only 142 days, from the march on March 17, 1965 to the passage of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. Now that federal law is under siege. The conservatives of the United States Supreme Court are poised to strike down one of its central provisions. And Republicans in states like Florida, Texas, and South Carolina have passed photo identification laws that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of registered voters who have long cast their ballots without incident. Republicans in other states, like Pennsylvania, have done likewise.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Ohio have moved to restrict early voting access, which has traditionally been used by minority voters. As with the photo ID requirements, the new restrictions were enacted under the guise of protecting elections from "voter fraud." But, as with the other restrictions, there is virtually no evidence of such fraud. And the impact of the new restrictions will have a disproportionate impact upon minority voters, many of whom don't have the time or the money or the means of transportation to obtain the required new forms of identification.
...With all that in mind, last week I asked Rep. Lewis for some context and perspective on the link between the civil right movement of a half century ago and today's voting rights movement. I wanted to know if the connection was valid and, if so, why so many of the voices which sounded so loudly in the 1960s have been so silent today. Is it because the texts of the new voting laws are "neutral"—technically applying their restrictions to whites and blacks alike? Or is it something more. It's a timely topic—with so many judges in so many states poised in the next few days and weeks to give their own answers.
Here is the interview.
I've made the argument (here at The Atlantic) that there are strong links between the aims of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and the aims of people today who are fighting against partisan restrictions on voting. How strong do you think that link really is?
The link is solid and very strong. The forces that fought against the goals and aims of the Civil Rights Movement in the '50s and '60s are very similar to the forces standing against voting rights today. Fifty years ago, they were primarily Southern segregated and racist groups who used brute force, arrests and violence to discourage people from participating. Today those forces are not just relegated to the American South, but they are operating throughout our country.
The documented incidences of voter fraud are very rare, yet throughout the country, forces have mobilized in over 30 states to stop it. These efforts are very partisan. They are not using overt violence and harassment, but subtle, more sophisticated devices to discourage and prevent people from participating in the electoral process.
How much of these new laws are based upon the fear of permitting minority votes to determine the coming election?
It is not outlandish to conclude that these new laws are based on the simple objective of blocking minorities from casting a vote that will determine the outcome of elections. Some appointed and elected officials have stated these aims and have made it very clear that they are working to disenfranchise minority voters in this election.