Civil rights history is often remembered in critical moments. Though the work was constant, and the lives of those who organized were complex and multifaceted, the history books mark specific moments when bold actions or stark decisions were made: The March on Selma. The Brown v. Board of Education decision. The “I Have a Dream” speech. The signing of the Voting Rights Act. These moments capture an era of a change.
Today we are witnessing a new chapter in civil rights. Many of the pillars of progress built during earlier eras are beginning to tumble down. From the violent police state, stained with the blood of countless unarmed Black men and women; to an education system riddled with school closures in our communities; to a wounded Voting Rights Act, gutted by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision; equal protection under the law and equitable access to opportunity remain elusive and are challenged daily.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act this week, one of the most striking examples of the continued challenges is in North Carolina – where we have been forced to defend those rights all over again.
Just weeks after the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby decision, which eliminated essential protections of the Voting Rights Act, North Carolina moved to became the first state to pass a voter suppression bill. The law that ultimately passed, a calculated effort by politicians to manipulate the voting rules, is the worst of its kind. Known as H.B. 589, it targets the very measures that African-American and Latino voters have used, over several election cycles, at significantly higher rates than White voters. These measures include early voting, which was cut by a full week under the law. Same-day registration, out-of-precinct voting, and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds were eliminated entirely. The law also requires North Carolinians to present limited forms of photo ID to vote.
Yet just as those who came before us, contemporary leaders are fighting back against these attacks on voting. The statewide Forward Together Moral Movement, a grassroots, multiracial coalition convened by the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, has been organizing against this regressive agenda through direct action in the streets and the state legislature – and last month, in a historic trial challenging the voter suppression law in court.
At trial, which wrapped in a federal court in Winston-Salem last week, we heard from experts, legislators and, most importantly, the voters who have been directly harmed by the voter suppression law. This included citizens who were turned away in 2014 because they were in the wrong precinct, voters who lost the opportunity to cast their ballot because same-day registration was no longer available, and many others. On the first day of trial, we marched together from the courthouse through downtown Winston-Salem, just as those before us marched in Selma. Now – 50 years after the March on Selma and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act – is our time for bold action.
From the moment H.B. 589 passed, the Forward Together Moral Movement has been fighting back. Our work is constant. The lives of those affected by the unjust law are complex, their stories multifaceted. And just like major civil rights cases in the past, the implications of the voting rights fight in North Carolina will be stark.
As we await a decision in our lawsuit, the solvency of the Voting Rights Act to stop discriminatory voting practices hangs in the balance. We are again at a crossroads, living through a moment that will surely be captured in history books. Fifty years after Selma and the powerful legislation it sparked, today we are writing the next chapter on voting rights.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II is the president of the North Carolina NAACP. Rev. Michelle Laws is the executive director of the North Carolina NAACP.