Marcus Anthony Hunter is an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University and author of “Black Citymakers: How the Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America.” This piece was published in partnership with the Scholars Strategy Network.
Signed into law as a federal holiday 30 years ago by President Ronald Reagan, the occasion to honor and remember Martin Luther King Jr. is also a moment to reflect on the state of democracy in the United States.
After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, King called it “a great step forward in removing all of the remaining obstacles to the right to vote.’’ His carefully chosen words highlighted the triumph of the act while signaling that there was more work to be done. For his part, King announced in his annual report to the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) a new initiative, the Political Education and Voter Registration Department. Charged with equipping poor and black voters with an understanding of the voting process and the new protections of the Voting Rights Act, King and his colleagues set out to help expand the number of registered voters.
Without regard for political affiliation or outcome, this initiative championed voter education and registration as a means to allay past injustices such as poll taxes and to guide the nation toward a more free and just society.
In 1968, the first presidential election after the act’s passage, the voter turnout was 60.8 percent. Nearly 50 years later, this remains the highest voter turnout (as a percentage of voting-age population) since the civil rights era. King never got to witness the fruits of the Southern Christian Leadership Council voter initiative, as he was killed several months before Richard Nixon was elected as the 37th president.
Today, we find ourselves embattled in a partisan debate that has amounted to reducing the voting rolls in many states. In numerous Republican-controlled state legislatures, elected officials from Pennsylvania to Indiana to Wisconsin to Texas (to name just a few) have fixed their collective energies not on underemployment but on voter fraud, despite the fact that this crime is almost nonexistent. Though Reagan approved Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Nixon may have benefited from the high turnout of 1968, their Republican successors have incrementally rolled back the Voting Rights Act, undoing the great work of King, the SCLC and their allies on both sides of the aisle.
What now? The way forward begins where King’s efforts ended, with a citizen-based initiative to inform, protect and increase voters, especially young ones.
Though the laws that suppress voting are being passed by Republican-dominated legislatures, the ultimate effect extends beyond our current political arrangements, contexts and leaders. Like gerrymandering, a practice of drawing district boundaries to limit voters’ choices long used by both parties, new voting laws will have lasting consequences even as states experience the ebbs and flows of political turnover from Republican to Democratic majorities and the impending shift toward a majority-minority nation. Laws that suppress poor and minority voters will likely have an equal impact on the same populations even if Democrats later control the state.
As King did, we must develop a national citizens’ movement to ensure that voting is open and expanding. The key shift we need, then, would be that citizens, not politicians, safeguard our voting rights. King’s approach demonstrates that citizens must protest, lobby and build a mass movement to protect the right to vote. The power of the vote, mobilized through ongoing initiatives for voter education and registration, can pressure and compel change from our elected officials.
We must remember King’s wisdom that the Voting Rights Act was meant to limit state and local politicians’ ability to impede citizens’ right to vote, no matter political affiliation. Such limitations were meant to protect citizens from political and socioeconomic obstacles to voting, their most fundamental opportunity to participate in a representative democracy. As King knew, an active and unfettered voting citizenry ensured a more limited yet effective and responsive government.
In 1963, in a jail cell in Alabama, King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we should take heed: Voter suppression anywhere is a threat to voters everywhere.
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