On Voting Rights, More Bridges to Cross

All day I have been receiving calls, text messages and emails from civil rights, human rights, and faith leaders generally expressing what Reverend Dr. Steve Bland, Jr. of Detroit told me: "If we don't have an insult level, we don't have a dignity level! It's time to sound the battle cry!"

When Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights hero and Georgia congressman, heard about the Supreme Court's ruling today that guts the Voting Rights Act, he said, "I'm shocked, dismayed, disappointed. I take it very personally. I gave a little blood on that bridge for the right to vote, for the right to participate in a democratic process."

Rep. Lewis, who has both "an insult and a dignity level," was referring to the march on Selma, also known as "Bloody Sunday," in which he and his fellow civil rights activists withstood organized police brutality as they demonstrated for the right to vote. That march and those that followed galvanized our nation to end the practices that were keeping African Americans in the South from participating in our democracy, helping to lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act just a few months later.

The memory of Selma remains fresh -- an inspiration and a warning -- for those who lived the reality of the segregated South and for those of us who to this day continue to fight back against assaults on our right to vote.

But the Supreme Court's conservative majority ruled today that Selma is ancient history.

Racism in voting rights, they sadly declared, is over, fixed by the very law that they decided to decimate, dismantle, chip away. Those who sided with the majority clearly have not been paying attention, reading the paper, attending community meetings, living in America. Throughout the country, state and local governments continue to try to make it harder for African Americans and other historically disenfranchised people to cast votes that count. The federal preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, up through this last election, played an important role in keeping those laws from taking effect.

The Supreme Court was wrong in multiple ways today: Our story is far from over. Just as efforts to keep African Americans from the ballot box sadly continue, our fight to overcome that suppression will continue -- and grow stronger. It is a testament to the power of our movement, the movement that continues to grow from that day in Selma to that November day in 2012 when African Americans turned out to vote at a greater rate than any other ethnic group. That doesn't mean that nobody's trying to stop us. It means that we must work always harder and smarter to gain and secure what is rightfully ours. And it means we have to protect the Voting Rights Act.

Remembering Selma today, Rep. Lewis reminded us that "there are other bridges to walk across." I'm a walker, let's start walking across those bridges today. As Reverend Charles Stovall of Dallas said in an encouraging call to me, "The battle of the Civil Rights movement was victorious in several struggles, but now a call to arms has gone out, and we are called with a greater sense of urgency to go back to war." Congress must pass a Voting Rights Act that's stronger than the one that the Supreme Court gutted. The Supreme Court, like every court, is important. This summer, as we prepare for the anniversary in August of the March on Washington, let's walk, teach, register and raise awareness in our communities, with our youth, and with all who are discriminated against and vulnerable to work to get federal judges on the bench who understand the historical value and meaning of our civil rights laws.

We have an insult and a dignity level to take help us across those bridges "over troubled waters." For yesterday, today and tomorrow, let's keep on standing up to those who want to suppress our voices and our right to vote! The battle cry has been sounded!