This month we’ve honored the anniversaries of events that we hoped would change America forever.
On March 21, 1965, hundreds of men and women began a peaceful march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery to stand up for one of the most cherished and fundamental rights in our democracy — the right to vote. But on Sunday, March 7 — two weeks before this successful march — the demonstrators were stopped on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. There, state troopers and local police met peace with violence. They unleashed nightsticks and tear gas, and they charged the protesters from horseback.
These events did set our nation on a new course, but the problem of discrimination in voting has not yet been eradicated. The days of violent intimidation to prevent African-Americans and Latinos from exercising the franchise may be behind us, but the right to vote is still far too often a promise rather than a guarantee, and racial discrimination in voting continues to plague our democracy, in old forms and new.
To protect the gains of the past 50 years, we need to ensure that our laws continue to protect against discrimination in 21st-century America.
When Congress first passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, racial discrimination in voting was pervasive, blatant and geographically concentrated. Towns and counties in many states would disenfranchise African-American and Latino voters by imposing literacy tests, demanding that citizens subject themselves to demeaning exercises — such as calculating the number of bubbles in a bar of soap before they would be permitted to vote — or through outright violence and intimidation.
The Voting Rights Act addressed these challenges by providing a series of remedies against discrimination, including a process known as “preclearance,” which required towns, counties and states with a history of discrimination to undergo a specific federal review before implementing electoral changes. For almost 50 years, this process prevented new voting laws from being implemented until a determination had been made that the new laws would not be racially discriminatory.