There is no better proof in 2014 of how invaluable the right to vote is than the amount of money currently being spent on efforts to take it away.
From voter ID laws, to the curtailing of early voting, to dark money groups disseminating misinformation, around the country, a staggering amount of wealth and influence is quietly being funneled into campaigns to keep people from exercising their Constitutional right to vote.
There is nothing new about this. In many ways, voter suppression is a tactic nearly as old as our republic itself; an enduring legacy of the many forms of oppression that are inextricable from the story of our founding. Contemporary schemes to disenfranchise American voters may be the most sophisticated, covert, and cynically exploitative in political memory. But they are, in many ways, more of the same – just the most recent additions to America’s ugly and often brutal history of voter suppression.
For African-Americans during the Jim Crow era, merely attempting to register to vote meant risking your life and livelihood. In Mississippi, arguably the most steadfastly segregationist state in the country at the time, White opposition might be economically punitive or physically violent, from job loss and eviction to beatings and bombings. The tremendous effectiveness of this campaign of terror is demonstrated most dramatically through numbers: In 1962, though home to one of the largest Black populations in the U.S., just 6.7 percent of Mississippi’s eligible Black citizens were registered to vote – the lowest rate in the country.
Freedom Summer was an effort to directly challenge Mississippi’s longstanding system of voter suppression, and to shine a national light on the plight of African-Americans in the state. Led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and NAACP, the campaign brought more than 700 volunteers — mostly young White college students from the North — to communities throughout Mississippi. For ten weeks in the summer of 1964, these volunteers, alongside organizers from SNCC and other civil rights groups, helped support freedom schools and register African-Americans to vote.
Instances of violence against volunteers and others involved in the nonviolent campaign offer a glimpse into the brutality and oppression under which Black Mississippians lived. According to CORE, nearly 40 Black churches and 30 Black homes and businesses were firebombed, hundreds were arrested, and at least 80 Black and White volunteers were beaten by racist Mississippi police. But the most heinous, and now historic, act was the murder of three young activists: James Chaney, who was Black, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were White. Whereas violence against local African-Americans had drawn little attention from outside the state, the murder of two young White men helped bring national media and public attention to Mississippi. Within weeks, public outrage over the killings gave President Johnson and Congress the political will to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, one year later, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which effectively prohibited racial discrimination in voting. In signing the law, President Johnson said, “This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies."Those words seem particularly resonant now, as voting rights are again under assault. After nearly 50 years as the country’s most effective bulwark against discrimination at the ballot box, a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, negating much of the law’s power. Within days of the court’s ruling, several states announced renewed plans to institute voting laws previously held unconstitutional under federal law. Since then, the floodgates have opened, with a record number of bills proposed, almost all of them cloaked in rhetoric around ensuring the integrity of elections, but designed to suppress the voting rights of millions of voters around the country. Those disproportionately affected by these proposed bills would be African-Americans and Latinos, as well as women of all races and young people – constituencies whose votes have had tremendous impact on elections in recent years.
It’s critical that we all recognize the shameful attack on voting rights – the most widespread voter suppression attempts seen since the Civil Rights era – as an assault on each of our personal freedoms, with the potential for deeply personal consequences. In making the documentary The New Black, which follows the 2012 electoral fight for marriage equality in Maryland, I saw firsthand how voting is often the most indispensable tool available to marginalized communities, all of whom are inheritors of the civil rights movement. Maryland’s voters – a third of whom are African-American – used the ballot box to ensure marriage as a civil right for gays and lesbians in the state. The victory was an incredible testament to the power of voting, and why it ranks among the most important of our civil liberties.
This year, on the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer, the lessons of that historic protest drive home what’s at stake in battles around the country to protect voting rights. This moment is an opportunity to push back against voter suppression efforts, to ensure that the sacrifices of those who bravely took part in Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Movement continue to be recognized by the legislation they fought for. I was inspired to create The New Black Freedom Summer Tour, sponsored by Spectrum Queer Media and ITVS, which brings the documentary to more than 100 cities around the country from April through the end of June. Many of the screenings include workshops and discussions about the Civil Rights Movement then, while tying it into work that is being done now. I invite you to join the discussion and fight to preserve our most precious civil right. Attend a screening of the film in your town (visit www.newblackfilm.com/screenings to find out where the movie is showing). Tune in to the film’s broadcast premiere this month on the PBS documentary series Independent Lens(begins June 15 in some areas. Click here to check your local listings) – or watch during the 21 days that follow, when The New Black will be streaming online for free. And be sure to check out my TED talk, titled “What the Gay Rights Movement Learned From the Civil Rights Movement,” from this year’s conference. Then start a conversation in your own community about the vital importance of voting rights.
Voting is power. Let’s each find a way to be part of the fight to ensure every American has equal access to the ballot and the democratic process.
The New Black airs on PBS' Independent Lens on June 15th. Click here for local listings.