I am a patriot, and I will not surrender that word to those who play to our worst impulses rather than our highest ideals. When the United States entered World War II, I dropped out of college to fight fascism. I flew 52 missions with a crew in a B-17, dropping bombs 35 times. Unlike so many others, I returned from that war safely, to another 70-plus years of life, love, family, failure and triumph.
It’s very likely that I owe my ass and all those decades of human experience to that Black and Brown squadron of Red Tail P-51 fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee airmen. When we saw their red tails coming to escort us, we all felt a bit safer.
Yet when these courageous men returned to the United States, they returned to racism, segregation and discrimination. Their heroism did not shield them from the indignities and violence of Jim Crow. I can only imagine the depth of the betrayal the airmen must have felt, but it did not prevent many of them from accomplishing great things.
I think often of the congresswoman Barbara Jordan. She will always be remembered for declaring during President Richard M. Nixon’s impeachment hearings, “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total.” Even now, it gives me chills to think of her saying that, as a Black woman, in the face of her own experiences of prejudice and her full knowledge of our history.
I believe Jordan’s faith in the Constitution, like my continued faith in our country, was grounded in the faith, love and hope of all the people who have struggled for the past 230 years — including millions who rallied for racial justice this past year — to make the Constitution’s promises real for all of us.
After we defeated fascism overseas, it took 20 more years to pass the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act at home. Now, headlines seem drawn from the past: States target Black voters with voter-suppression bills. Federal voting-rights laws blocked in the Senate by a filibuster.
Racial and religious nationalism, nativism and authoritarianism are seemingly on the rise everywhere. It is deeply discouraging to this member of what has been called “the Greatest Generation.”
But do you know who else was part of the Greatest Generation? Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Thurgood Marshall. And think of the greatness demonstrated by generations that followed us: Jordan, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, and millions of not-famous people who risked everything to claim the right to vote.
To legislators getting between people and the ballot box, and to senators who are standing in the dishonorable tradition of those who filibustered civil rights legislation, I say this: You may pass some unjust laws. You may win elections by preventing or discouraging people from voting.
But you will not in the end defeat the democratic spirit, the spirit that animated the Tuskegee airmen to whom I owe my life, the spirit that powers millions of Americans who give of themselves to defend voting rights, protect our environment, preserve peaceful pluralism, defeat discrimination, and expand educational and economic opportunity.
The right to vote is foundational to addressing all these issues. It is at the heart of everything I have fought for in war and in peacetime.
To senators who are willing to sacrifice the right to vote to some outdated notion of bipartisanship and Senate tradition, I almost do not know what to say. On the scale of justice, this is not even a close call. Do what’s right.
Protecting voting rights should not be today’s struggle. But it is. And that means it is our struggle, yours and mine, for as long as we have breath and strength.