ATLANTA — It was the rarest of sights: Three generations of civil rights leaders convened at the Wheat Street Baptist Church to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. But it was hardly a celebratory spirit that pulsated through the church. More than to take an assemblage to take a nostalgic waltz back to the Civil Rights Movement’s glory days, the esteemed leaders issued a stern warning to those in attendance as well as anyone who reads their words:
Powerful forces are hellbent on infringing upon and compromising black people’s fundamental Constitutional and American right to vote without obstruction, and that African Americans need to fiercely and jealously guard the VRA from their enemy’s evil clutches.
The leaders are responding to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to remove a major portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 that gave nine states, mostly in the South, permission to change laws governing their elections and voting processes without first have to receive federal approval beforehand. Since that monumental decision two years ago, we have seen “red” states implement various measures that these black leaders define as dastardly moves to significantly impede on minority and youth electorate participation.
It was appropriate that the man who had his skull cracked (and nearly died) on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. 50 years ago — marching to make President Lyndon Johnson pass the Voting Rights Act — would issue the strongest challenge to his listeners on this most momentous occasion.
“I tell you, we have a fight on our hands. And if I wasn’t in church, I would say something else. But I think that we are too quiet. We are just too quiet. But I think we can fix the Voting Rights Act if get out there and just make some noise and push,” legendary U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) railed at the podium to thunderous applause. “People were hung and beaten and some were shot and killed — they were murdered — for this. But now we’re going to sit on our butts and not do anything” as the enemies continue to chip away at the Voting Rights protection in multiple states.
“We have to speak up and speak out and get in the way, and get into trouble — good trouble and necessary trouble,” Lewis continued, enumerating on the many ridiculous rules and obstacles blacks had to negotiate just to register to vote back in the day. “You don’t believe me, but there are forces in our country that are trying to take us back” to those dark days of Jim Crowism.
The rare gathering of venerated leaders was part of a day-long event that was facilitated by the Coalition for a People’s Agenda, an umbrella organization of civil and civic groups co-created and headed by SCLC President-emeritus Rev. Joseph Lowery, the man called the “Dean of Civil Rights Leaders.”
The luncheon discussion also recounted the struggle for the 1965 VRA and outlined what citizens need to do to make sure key provisions of the VRA struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 are restored. Joining Lowery and Lewis in the dialogue were: Ambassador Andrew Young, the nation’s first African-American Ambassador to the United Nations; Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., founder and president, Rainbow PUSH Coalition; Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed; Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell; Martin Luther King III; and Wade Henderson, president, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Rev. Jesse Jackson said blacks must put energy behind the move to save and restore the Voting Rights Act because legislators have treated the VRA as if “we’re on the back of legislature like we were on the back of the bus. The South Carolina flag come down, but the agenda did not come down.
“In 2013 (when the Supreme Court struck down provision 5 of the law which eliminated the need for states to pre-clear any action that would affect the right to vote) , we lost it again,” Jackson continued. “What we should have been doing when we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Selma march, was looking forward in the windshield and not looking back through the rear view mirror. We also need another amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Hosted by The Peoples Agenda, led by Helen Butler, and Realizing The Dream, led by Martin Luther King III, the lunch session also discussed “The South and the 2016 Elections: Overcoming Contemporary Challenges to Political Participation” featured sessions outlining current barriers to political participation, voter education and voter registration training. Co-sponsors of the event include: NAACP National Voter Fund, African American Human Rights Foundation and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
Young admonished the crowd to plow through the obstacles being erected in the way of restoring the Voting Rights Act.
“Back then coming together was not about us,” said Ambassador Young. “It was about us moving the society forward…. We understood that God brought us here to give leadership and vision to this one nation. We have to move forward with black and white together, rich and poor, together. Hold on to the plow and keep on keeping on.”
“We have to fight on two fronts,” added Atlanta Mayor Mayor Reed. “We have to fight on the intellectual level and we have to take it to the streets and punish any politician that does not sign on to the reauthorizing of the Voting Rights Act.”
A proclamation from the Atlanta City Council was presented by Atlanta City Councilman Caesar Mitchell to The Peoples Agenda and Realizing The Dream for their commitment to keeping the dialogue alive. “It’s great to celebrate the work of the ages but when we leave here the work has to continue in our neighborhoods.”
It was pointed out that President Obama would not be president today if leaders had not fought for the VRA in the 60s. Henderson told the crowd, “Demand your rights as full Americans. If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”
Lowery closed out the event by saying, “I shouldn’t be out but I couldn’t stay away from this meeting. I want to thank all of you who came out and I want to thank the spirit in which you’ve come; that’s the key to Black progress, the Black spirit.”