By MARC MORIAL
“No nation can long continue to flourish or to find its way to a better society while it allows any one of its citizens…to be denied the right to participate in the most fundamental of all privileges of democracy – the right to vote.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On Monday, Jan. 16, America celebrated what would have been the 83rd birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The day was marked from coast-to-coast with parades, speeches, and pilgrimages to the new King Memorial on the National Mall. But in the midst of this outpouring of praise, there is a sinister movement afoot to undo one of Dr. King’s hardest fought victories – the removal of discriminatory barriers to voting and the passage of the Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.
In Dr. King’s day, billy clubs, cattle prods and guns kept African Americans away from the polls. Today, new voter restriction laws on the books or in the works in at least 34 states could deny the right to vote to more than 5 million Americans this year. These laws include new photo ID requirements, elimination of early voting, bans on voting by out-of-state college students, and rollbacks of voting rights for ex-felons who have paid their debts to society. Florida has even eliminated voting on the Sunday before Election Day which has traditionally been a day when African-American churches organized “souls to the polls” drives for their congregations.
The mostly conservative proponents of these new laws claim they are meant to prevent widespread fraud – the casting of ballots by people who are not legally eligible to vote. But both the Bush and Obama Justice Departments have looked and not found significant voter fraud in American elections.
So let’s be clear – the real reason behind this spate of new laws is to suppress the votes of people likely to support progressive candidates and issues – African Americans, Latinos, young people, the elderly and people with disabilities. This is unconscionable. It is un-American. And it dishonors the sacrifices of generations of Americans who have fought and died to extend the right to vote to every citizen.
Fortunately, a growing number of Americans are fighting back. On Dec. 10, the National Urban League joined the NAACP and a