The far-right attack on voting rights is fierce. And the unwillingness of some Senate Democrats to challenge rules that allow a Republican minority to block voting rights bills is making some question whether we can turn back the tide of voter suppression. As the Black Voters Matter Freedom Ride Bus Tour makes its way through Southern cities including Nashville, Atlanta, Columbia, Raleigh, and Richmond with the final stop in Washington, DC, we must redouble our efforts on three fronts on what we know will be a long road ahead to defend democracy from the cynics and the skeptics.
Yes, a long road. Democracy in the U.S. has always been a work in progress. It is always under attack. It must always be defended and strengthened.
When the Constitution was written and ratified, “We, the people” didn’t apply to most of the people. After a bloody civil war, the Constitution was amended so dramatically that historian Eric Foner has called it “the second founding.” But without the political will to enforce those amendments, Reconstruction gave way to the brutality of Jim Crow, voter suppression, and legally enforced segregation. It took decades of struggle to defeat Jim Crow through Supreme Court rulings and passage of civil rights and voting rights laws.
Like the post-Civil War amendments, the victories of the civil rights movement changed history. But they didn’t change human nature. They didn’t bring an end to the struggle for justice and equality. Racism and discrimination took new forms and were institutionalized in new ways.
The flood of voter suppression laws being passed this year builds on an earlier wave of voter suppression that came after the Supreme Court’s conservatives did away with key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. And all those laws are part of an even broader attack on genuine democracy that includes extreme racial and partisan redistricting and laws and court rulings that have allowed a flood of big money to overwhelm our election system.
This corruption of our democracy harms us in concrete ways. It keeps power in the hands of those who resist efforts to address the systemic inequities in our society and economy.
I understand why some people look at this corruption and the power devoted to upholding it and think there’s just no way to defeat it. But our country’s history, and specifically the history of Black people in America, is a history of struggle against impossible odds, a history of overcoming resistance and backlash.
We have proven that we can win when we fight strategically and make progress whenever we have the opportunity. Right now, with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in the White House, and Democrats holding majority power in the House and Senate, we have an opportunity we cannot afford to waste.
There are three urgently important steps Congress must take this year to defend voting rights and strengthen democracy. The late Rep. John Lewis, for decades the conscience of the Congress, had his heart and hands in all three of them.
The first is to pass the For the People Act. It would overturn new state voter suppression laws and eliminate the worst abuses of redistricting and big money in our elections. Lewis authored its voting rights provisions. It is urgently important to pass the For the People Act now to prevent massive voter suppression in the 2022 and 2024 elections.
The second is to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would protect against future voting rights abuses by restoring its enforcement mechanisms.
The third is to grant statehood to the District of Columbia and give its 700,000 residents full voting rights and voting representation in Congress. The District of Columbia has a higher percentage of Black residents than any other state, which makes their disenfranchisement a fundamental civil rights violation and a betrayal of basic democratic principles. John Lewis was a champion of D.C. statehood. He saw the disenfranchisement of D.C. citizens as a moral wrong.
The For the People Act, John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and D.C. statehood are a pro-democracy trinity. To keep faith with the voters who put them in power, especially Black voters, President Biden and congressional Democrats must seize the moment to turn back attacks on voting and democracy. And to honor the voting rights legacy of John Lewis, we must all continue to make our voices heard and make “good trouble” on behalf of voting rights and democracy.
Ben Jealous is currently president of People For the American Way in Washington, D.C. and is the former national president & CEO of the NAACP. He is also a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.