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'The American Promise'--The Right to Vote"

Marian Wright Edelman | 3/15/2012, 2:08 p.m.

Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right... The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong--deadly wrong--to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of States rights or National rights. There is only the struggle for human rights.

--President Lyndon Johnson, The American Promise, March 15, 1965

These words are from the well-known televised address President Johnson gave before a joint session of Congress urging members to move forward without delay on what would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The speech and legislation came after the entire nation had spent days transfixed by events in Alabama. On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams set out with a group of 600 on a planned 50-mile peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery. Instead, state troopers brutally attacked the nonviolent protestors on the first day at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The televised images of "Bloody Sunday" and the injured marchers--including Lewis, whose skull was fractured--were a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. They roused great sympathy for the protesters and reminded all Americans that these marchers had to put their lives on the line for what should have been considered a basic American right: the right to vote.

On March 4, 2012, marchers returned to the road from Selma to Montgomery--but not just to revisit that moment in history that changed the course of our nation. They are marching again because in 2012, voting rights are once again under attack.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said to the crowd of thousands (I was among them) who finally completed the original march to Montgomery two weeks later: "The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength... The confrontation of good and evil compressed in the tiny community of Selma generated the massive power to turn the whole nation to a new course. A president born in the South had the sensitivity to feel the will of the country, and in an address that will live in history as one of the most passionate pleas for human rights ever made by a president of our nation, he pledged the might of the federal government to cast off the centuries-old blight." In August 1965, the Voting Rights Act became law.

But right now many states are attempting to put new voting restrictions in place that parallel all the old tricks and turn back the clock on civil rights to the days when voting was used as a tool for political control and exclusion. The "centuries-old blight" now has a twenty-first century disguise. The latest restrictions include strict photo identification requirements limited to certain forms of government-issued ID, cuts on early voting and absentee voting, and new requirements for registration that make it much more difficult for voters to prove citizenship and residency and register to vote at all. The changes threaten to disenfranchise millions of people, and studies show young, minority, and low-income voters and voters with disabilities will be most affected.

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