Why 'We're Not About to Turn Around': Honoring Martin Luther King's Fight for Voting Rights

This week, we honor the life of civil rights crusader Dr. Martin Luther King, who fought to end racial discrimination. King played a critical role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, the monumental legislation that ensures that every American citizen, regardless of race, has equal access to the vote. But today, King's work is severely threatened. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, a move that has led to a full frontal attack on the voting rights of all Americans.

Fortunately, Congress took action last week when Representatives James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), John Conyers (D-MI), Bobby Scott (D-VA), John Lewis (D-GA) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA), common sense, bipartisan legislation to repair and restore the Voting Rights Act.

The League is pleased that Congress has taken action and introduced strong legislation on behalf of all voters' rights. As we honor King's work, we are in urgent need of modern, common sense legislative fixes to realize his vision that every American is treated fairly at the ballot box.

Prompted by the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act is commonly hailed as one of the nation's most historically effective civil rights statutes. The legislation required jurisdictions with patterns of racial discrimination to seek federal approval, or preclearance, for any changes to their election laws. But this summer's Supreme Court decision gutted the preclearance mechanism, helping pave the way for discriminatory voting laws.

Just hours after the Supreme Court ruling, Texas announced that it would reconsider a voter ID bill and a controversial redistricting plan that had previously been struck down as racially discriminatory under the VRA's preclearance process. Not long after, North Carolina passed what voting rights advocates have called the most suppressive voting law in decades. Across the country, states continue to propose anti-voter legislation that seeks to impose strict voter ID requirements, redraw districts to maintain political power and limit early and absentee voting options. Prior to the Supreme Court's ruling this summer, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) used the VRA to block hundreds of racially discriminatory voting measures in states across the country - including as recently as the 2012 election cycle.

In the last decade alone, the country has seen countless attempts to racially discriminate against voters. When the VRA was last reauthorized in 2006, the Senate Judiciary Committee released an exhaustive, 15,000 page report that exposed large-scale evidence of voter discrimination across the country, particularly in those regions covered by preclearance. The report helped inspire Congress not only to reauthorize the VRA, but also to laud its invaluable role in thwarting racial injustice. Without the VRA's protections, Congress wrote, the evidence is clear that "racial and language minority citizens will be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, or will have their votes diluted."

Fortunately, the newly filed legislation to repair the Voting Right Act and stop the flood of voter suppression is both possible and realistic. As preparations begin for the 2014 election cycle, the League believes it is crucial for Congress to act swiftly to repair the Voting Rights Act and protect the voting rights of Americans everywhere. The U.S. Department of Justice, which took bold action this summer in filing suits both against Texas's voter photo ID law and North Carolina's voter suppression law, remains committed to preventing discrimination in our electoral process and a repaired VRA will only further eliminate discrimination in voting.

As a nation, our democracy is diminished when voters face unequal access to the polls. The right to vote is not about politics or the outcome of elections. It is about equality and justice, and the understanding that our nation is at its strongest when all voters can weigh in. Fortunately, the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act introduced last week shows that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize the importance of protecting voting rights and eliminating discrimination in voting. The League asks that Americans, inspired by King's famous assertion, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," urge Congress to act swiftly and pass the critical legislation.

In his 1965 speech at the Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights, King said, "I want to say to the people of America and the nations of the world, that we are not about to turn around." Nearly 50 years after King fought for the passage of the monumental Voting Rights Act, we will refuse to turn around. Instead, we will demand action to realize King's vision of an equal path to the ballot for all Americans.