At 73 years old, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) took the podium at the “Realize the Dream Rally” and spoke with the same fire that he had 50 years ago when he was the youngest speaker featured at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“Back in 1963, hundreds of thousands and millions of our brothers and sisters could not register to vote,” he said on Saturday. “But when I stood here 50 years ago I said, ‘One man, one vote is the African cry and it is ours too.’”
In 1963 the “one man, one vote” slogan was the rallying cry of South African activist Steven Biko, who used it in an African socialist context. Given the slogan’s roots, it was quite radical for Lewis to use it in his 1963 speech. It was also radical for Lewis—a sitting member of Congress in the same party as a black president whom conservatives accuse of being an African socialist—to use it on Saturday.
But those four words, “one man, one vote,” show a clear commitment to the democratic principles of fair and equal access to the ballot and representation in Congress.
In 1963, Lewis didn’t believe the federal government was doing enough to protect voting rights for African Americans. In his speech at the March on Washington that year, he criticized the civil rights bill that Kennedy hoped to pass:
“As it stands now, the voting section of this bill will not help the thousands of black people who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia who are qualified to vote, but lack a sixth-grade education.”
Today, you may not need to prove that you have a sixth grade education, but in Arizona and Kansas, election officials want evidence that you are a citizen before allowing you to register to vote—something that would encumber mostly Latino-, African- and Asian-Americans. Other Southern states hope to follow suit. It’s difficult to see many white people probed for proof of their citizenship. It’s easier to see someone like Sen. Ted Cruz interrogated for his papers—and not because he’s Canadian—than seeing the same happen to someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger, thick Austrian accent and all.
Such laws, along with photo voter ID mandates, tend to judge people by the color of their skin while making them prove the content of their citizenship. There is no other rationale for them given that the voter fraud they are supposed to deter barely exists. What they really do is skim off a small percentage of mostly Democratic voters—the elderly, people of color and of low income—from the electorate, as Pennsylvania Republican Party chair Rob Gleason recently admitted of their goal.
And they are popping up at an opportune time for Republicans, who had not made voter ID laws a priority until an African-American took the White House (though, the push for proof-of-citizenship in Arizona began in earnest around 2004). As Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the civil rights organization National Action Network, said at the march Saturday, “We didn’t need ID to vote for John F. Kennedy. We didn’t need it to vote for Lyndon B. Johnson. … But suddenly we need it after we voted for Barack Obama.”
There’s no separating voting rights struggles from civil rights—the former is basically the source code for the latter. Which is why Lewis and civil rights leaders knew back in 1963 that you couldn’t simply fold voting rights into a small section of the Civil Rights Act. It needed its own bill. Without the ability to vote, other civil rights gains would be suboptimal. So right after they marched for jobs and freedom, many civil rights groups pivoted to voting rights and declared it the priority.
After the 1963 march, Lewis worked with civic voter leagues, his own Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—groups that weren’t exactly working in harmony—to register African-Americans and help them navigate poll taxes and literacy tests. He reminded the crowds on Saturday that he was arrested more than 40 times and was beaten at the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
When the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was passed in 1965, it triggered an immediate backlash from white, conservative lawmakers who began challenging it in court before African-Americans could begin to enjoy its benefits and protections. Over the following decades, Republicans tried weakening or eliminating it dozens of times at almost every court level when they weren’t trying to kill it through legislation. The VRA survived the attacks thanks to the defensive legal driving of groups like NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. But this past July, the U.S. Supreme Court seriously damaged VRA’s sentinel powers when it declared the coverage formula for Section Five pre-clearance unconstitutional.
The impact of that ruling combined with the proliferation of voter ID and proof of citizenship laws is that the voting rights of African-Americans and people of color are in their most vulnerable position since the VRA was passed. This is why the call for Congress to restore VRA and to pass a constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote was such a prominent feature of Saturday’s march.
It’s also why House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill, Martin Luther King III and dozens of other speakers Saturday made these same demands of Congress. And Lewis said Saturday that he wasn’t “gonna stand by and let the Supreme Court take away” what he fought and bled for.
“Some people tell us to wait, tell us to be patient,” he said. “I say 50 years later, we can not wait. I’m not tired. I’m not weary. I’m ready to fight.”