This weekend marks more than the first day of summer; it represents 50 years since the historic Freedom Summer of 1964. Taking place at the height of the civil rights movement, Freedom Summer was a historic undertaking that helped prompt the landmark Voting Rights Act – the fruits of which are at risk today.
Led by black Mississippians and more than 1,000 volunteers from across the nation, Freedom Summer aimed to end the violent abuse and denial of civil rights faced by African Americans in Mississippi. The cornerstone of the project was to register black voters, a group that had long faced intense racial discrimination at the polls. Organizers faced constant abuse and harassment for their work. Three activists were murdered, scores of volunteers were beaten and dozens of churches were bombed.
Fortunately, the blood, sweat and tears of these brave activists were not in vain. Just a year following Freedom Summer, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 into law. The landmark legislation abolished literacy tests, prohibited poll taxes and established a vital system to prevent voter discrimination.
But nearly a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, risking the very gains of Freedom Summer. Since the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby v. Holder, state after state has sought to implement discriminatory voting measures. From moving polling locations in areas with high populations of minority voters to passing voter ID laws and reducing early voting periods, voters across the country have been plagued with restrictions on their access to the ballot box.
Luckily, there’s a solution. The bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA), is a flexible, modern answer to the problem of discrimination in voting. Introduced in Congress early this year, the VRAA is a workable, commonsense solution that would modernize the elections process and protect voting rights against discrimination. Yet despite bipartisan co-sponsors and strong support from civil and voting rights groups, the legislation has yet to move forward. Next week, the Senate will be holding the first hearing on the bill. Please join us in calling on the House to do the same.
Fifty years after Freedom Summer, we must fight to keep our nation’s hard-won civil rights protections intact. Just this coming November, there are Americans who will not be able to vote because of new discriminatory restrictions. Every day that Congress fails to act, voters’ rights are in danger. Failure to advance this legislation gives a free pass to voting discrimination.
Freedom Summer and the civil rights activists behind it left us with a legacy of strength and bravery in the fight for equal rights for all. Now is the time to build on that legacy through modern, 21st century protections. That begins with moving the VRAA forward. The time for waiting is over – tell your Representative to call for a hearing on the VRAA.
Photo provided by League of Women Voters.