When he tried to register to vote, he was turned away, and it only made him more determined to make real the principles he had fought for overseas. As an NAACP official and citizen, he advocated for desegregated schools and boycotts of businesses that discriminated, and conducted investigations into violent crimes against blacks.
As a champion of equal voting rights, he led voter registration drives. In June 1963, he was ambushed and shot dead in his front yard by segregationist Byron De La Beckwith while Evan’s wife and three children waited for him.
On every Election Day, if it’s raining or frigid, if I’m not crazy about candidate A or B, if I’m tempted to skip it this one time because it doesn’t matter, I think of Evers and all the others who put their lives on the line for that right. And now, as pre-November skirmishes rage in a battle that most thought was long over, I am thinking about Medgar Evers once again.
Though much has changed since he was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, clearly this country hasn’t fully signed on to the open society he championed. With Martin Luther King Jr. as a witness, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It outlawed the discriminatory practices that disenfranchised African Americans throughout much of the South but – wisely as it turns out – required certain states to obtain “preclearance” for any changes in voting regulations from the federal government or courts.
Since the 2010 elections, states with GOP-controlled legislatures have rushed to pass laws that make it more difficult to vote. They say the measures are needed to prevent fraud at the polls, while opponents, primarily Democrats, insist that the rush to solve a problem that doesn’t exist aims to inconvenience and discourage poor, minority, elderly and young voters. The new laws often require photo identification, cut back on early voting and voter registration efforts and limit the voting rights of former felons who have served their time.
Of course Florida, a state with a history of electoral shenanigans, could be counted on to up the ante. I’m not sure what sickens me more, watching Republican Gov. Rick Scott promote voting restrictions and purges so outrageous they ensnared another World War II veteran and caused a federal judge and the Department of Justice to step in, or listening to some commentators describe it as a part of the game of politics, mere campaign strategy to shape the electorate in a way that will favor one side and hobble another at the ballot box.
Placing obstacles in a process that should be easy to navigate has morphed into just another way to rig the system, with the ends – a country on a path one side deems “correct” – more than justifying the means. Those means halt progress in an America where once only white property owners could vote. The country has slowly inched its way to inclusion, lowering barriers to poor whites, religious groups, women, Native Americans and African Americans, but not without sometimes violent pushback along the way.
If you didn’t have a lobby to argue your cause or hundreds of millions of dollars to back your candidate of choice, the vote was the great equalizer, the one thing you did have -- the more the better in a true democracy.
This country’s participation is not close to the upwards of 80 percent turnout I noted in France’s recent national election. In fact, there are those who believe less is more if it guarantees a win.
As conservative activist Paul Weyrich famously said in 1980: “I don't want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
The attempts to freeze voting as a privilege reserved for a few rather than expand it as a right for all don’t surprise. Sharing even a bit of power – particularly with those deemed less worthy – can’t be easy when you’re used to having it all.
What’s needed is a strong dose of outrage and a realization that what you win isn’t worth much if trampling over the constitution and the memory of Medgar Evers is the very steep price we all end up paying.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3