We all have a role to place in maintaining, strengthening, and participating in our democracy. David Pepper stresses the significance of the Voting Rights Act and urges on current and expanded efforts to protect and expand democracy.
Published:January 11, 2024
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By David Pepper
“Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”
- John Lewis It gets lost in history, but there was a near-immediate impact of the Voting Rights Act in the months and years directly following its passage and signing in 1965.
There was a huge surge of newly registered Black voters in just a few years. And much of it took place in the counties most impacted by the racist laws and violence—the ones that had most locked out Black voters for generations.
Now, you may be scratching your head at my first sentence above—where I say “it gets lost in history.” Of course, you’re thinking, people know all about the profound impact the Voting Rights Act had on our nation, particularly in the South.
But what gets lost in history is what specifically led to that near immediate surge in registration right after the VRA passed.
We think we know what sparked it, but we don’t. Hindsight warps our collective memory. We assume now it’s because the VRA’s legal changes had an immediate impact on certain suppression tactics and practices. That high-profile lawsuits and famous court decisions led to the enlisting of all those new voters. That the robust process for challenging future suppression practices known as pre-clearance (the one eliminated by the Shelby County case) must’ve led to all these new voters.
And of course those legal changes were all historic.
Some, right away. Some, over time.
BUT the registration progress I described above occurred before some of the most important legal cases clarified what the VRA actually did. And long before later cases made pre-clearance the powerful tool it would eventually become.
Some progress came even before cases clarified that the VRA was Constitutional in the first place.
So how did all this progress take place even before the full legal impact of the Voting Rights Act was even understood? Or put into effect? Before some of the most famous cases ever came down?
Because the Voting Rights Act did more than just set up a new legal framework which was so important long-term.
It did more than just prohibit certain practices that had kept people from voting. It took one other step that was key.
And which was the key step at first.
A step that sparked immediate action lifting voters previously disenfranchised into American democracy.
It created a robust infrastructure to register those long long disenfranchised voters.
And activating that part of the VRA was the federal government’s first priority after the VRA was signed in August 1965: as fast as they could, they mustered up and trained an army of federal “registrars” and sent them to the 4 states and 30 counties in the South with the lowest percentage of registered Black voters (between 2 and 10%), and day in and day out, those registrars energetically registered the people of all those communities. Then they expanded the work elsewhere. And they did all this hard work amid threats and acts of violence.
Again, activating that process and building that infrastructure was the immediate priority following the VRA’s passage. They rapidly stood up a large registration mechanism, and got it into the field as quickly as they could.
And because of that spirited effort and dedication, the numbers exploded—revolutionizing democracy in the South over the years that followed:
In the first two months of the work, 110,000 voters were registered. By January 1966, 240,000. By March, 302,000!
(Again, the first major cases upholding the VRA didn’t get decided until later, in the summer of 1966).And that registration work just kept right on going:In Mississippi, Black registration went from 10% in 1964 to almost 60% in 1968.
In Alabama, it jumped from 24% to 57%.
By 1967, a majority of Black citizens were Americans registered to vote in 9 of the 13 Southern states.
By 1969, more than one million new voters had registered.
According to the DOJ, in the five years of hard work, nearly as many Black citizens registered to vote in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina as had registered in the entire century before 1965!
Again, the power and impact of pre-clearance came later…largely after major court cases (coming in 1969 and after) made clear what it meant and how widely it applied.
The surge of new voters came first. And it worked incredibly well.
So why do I bring this up now?
It’s because I was inspired by Joe Biden’s speech last week. About democracy. About how we must fight for it. Now. Always.
And clearly, Biden is right. Trump is a mortal threat to our democracy. We must defeat him, along with the forces allied against democracy up and down the ballot.
But we don’t fight for democracy by simply winning a campaign against a would-be autocrat. And we don’t only fight it through speeches and court cases that lawyers bring on behalf of voters (or the government). We fight for it through action day in and day out.
The way the government did immediately after the VRA passed.
The DOJ and government were on it in the Fall of 1965. Because one of the most concrete ways to take effective action is to put government and other institutions to work on behalf of democracy. And voters. Especially in communities, just like the post VRA South—those 30 counties with under 10% registration that they targeted in 1965 and 1966—where Americans are disproportionately excluded from democracy.
And we can take similar steps right now.
Even better—we have a major advantage over the 1960s South.
Those who believe in democracy are for the most part in charge of the very cities and communities and nonprofits and other institutions where many of these voters live. And the atmosphere of intimidation and violence is nowhere near the level it was back then, where they were literally tasked with building a working democracy to communities that had been without one (and hostile to one) for close to a century.
So we don’t need to send a bunch of federal registrars in from the outside to do this work. (Although I’m open to any and all ideas like that as well).
We’re already in these communities. We often lead them, and/or lead key organizations in them.
Through City Halls, county commissions, health clinics, universities, food pantries, public housing, recreation centers and libraries and so many other community institutions:
We’re on the ground, and in charge! We have an infrastructure already in place. And it’s often already serving the very people who are no longer active in our democracy, who are rarely engaged by the usual political process.
But unlike those 1960s registrars, working urgently to lift up democracy, we’re not actively using the infrastructure we have now to engage and register these Americans to participate. Not nearly enough.
And it’s a massive lost opportunity.
“Freedom is not a state; it is an act.”
So if you like what Joe Biden said about democracy last week, also remember the words of John Lewis, who reminded us: “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”
He was talking about many things there, but he was talking about concrete steps like those federal registrars rushing down to communities where under 10% of Black voters were registered when they started, and where more than half were registered a few years later!
Think about that action now.
Think about who’s best positioned to undertake it.
Mayors. Council members. County Commissioners. School board members. Other public and nonprofit boards.
Each is far better positioned to lift voters than those registrars ever were.
Each could engage those they serve in a way that used the footprints of their organizations to engage and to register—and many of the people they are serving are the very constituents being removed from our democracy by voter purges and the like.
So…do you know any of these leaders? Are you one of them? Do you support them? Do you work with them? Do you volunteers for any of these non-profits?
If you do, take action.
Push for this type of action to take place.
Let’s recreate the atmosphere of the post-VRA South NOW…and everywhere.
Because as the President reminded us yesterday, democracy is on the line.
And as John Lewis taught us, it is our continuous action that will best protect it.
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