Almost 60 years ago, on Aug. 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of Americans came together for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Led by civil rights giants like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, the March was a catalyst for action on federal civil and voting rights legislation. With the anniversary of this historic event approaching, we’re looking back at what happened at the March on Washington, how federal legislation to protect voting rights has progressed since then and how to fight back as Republicans continue their attacks on voting decades later.
The March on Washington made history.
The March on Washington was not the first mass rally organized to fight for civil rights for Black Americans. Throughout the 1950s, civil rights groups planned marches and protests in the nation’s capital to fight for better jobs, desegregation, voting rights and much more. Many of these efforts were successful, but some were canceled before their scheduled date because the promise of such a popular showing was enough political pressure to spur legislative action from the White House. But by 1963, there were still significant economic and democratic barriers facing Black Americans, especially in the highly segregated South, and Martin Luther King Jr. agreed to join other civil rights activists for a planned march.
The March had a list of clearly stated demands for the government. Among them were “a comprehensive civil rights bill” and “protection of the right to vote,” goals that drew many organizations to co-sponsor the March, including the NAACP and the United Auto Workers. More than 200,000 marchers joined the protest on Aug. 28, which culminated with King’s deliverance of his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. After the March, President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson met with King and other organizers. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) were responses to the demands of the March, and an effort by the federal government to improve the issues of discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement that King highlighted in his speech.
Today, the legislative gains of the March are under threat.
Today, the pieces of landmark legislation that made history in the fight for civil rights are under attack. Some of the most important enforcement mechanisms of the VRA have been hollowed out by a decade of rulings from a conservative U.S. Supreme Court.
Section 5 of the VRA required jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory election laws to get federal pre-approval of new voting legislation, including redistricting. For states whose governments had a history of suppressing voters, the federal government could act as a check on their political attempts to discriminate against Black voters — and this legislation could be blocked before it became law, instead of needing to be litigated in courts after the law was put in place.
The jurisdictions that were subject to preclearance were determined by a formula outlined in Section 4 of the VRA, which took into account how many eligible voters in the state were actually registered and whether the state imposed any kind of burdensome tests that may restrict its population from being able to vote. These types of tests have been disproportionately used to disenfranchise Black voters over a century of American election law. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia were all subject to preclearance, as well as some individual jurisdictions in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4’s coverage formula in Shelby County v. Holder, making Section 5 essentially unenforceable. The justices said their ruling was based on the outdated metrics, such as a state’s voter registration numbers for the 1975 general election, used in Section 4 to decide if a state was subject to preclearance. The text of Section 5 still stands, however, and can be enforced to its fullest extent once again if a new coverage formula is passed by Congress. Since the 2013 ruling, states previously subject to preclearance have enacted countless restrictive voting laws that disenfranchise Black voters. Shelby County was a win for Republican lawmakers across the country who wished to see the protections of the VRA scaled back. Until Congress can pass a new coverage formula, states with histories of voter suppression have much freer rein to continue to disenfranchise their constituents.
As recently as this year, the Supreme Court has chipped away at the VRA’s protections. This summer, in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the Court took on Section 2, which prohibits any voting laws that result in the “denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” With Section 2, voting rights advocates could challenge voting laws that had either a discriminatory purpose or a discriminatory result. The Court’s opinion, however, provided a narrow list of “guideposts” to determine if a law has a discriminatory result — leaving room for some laws that disproportionately burden minority voters to be considered lawful. This ruling weakened the protections of Section 2 and makes it harder for voting rights groups to bring challenges to laws that set the time, place and manner of elections.
Congress can act to restore and strengthen voting rights.
Despite these rulings that weaken the VRA’s protections and enforcement mechanisms, it’s important to remember that the VRA is just one piece of legislation — and today, we have another chance to pass new legislation that strengthens and revitalizes its protections and significantly alters the trajectory of our democracy. Just as the VRA did in 1965, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would establish essential baseline protections for voters, re-enfranchising the targets of Republican voter suppression and making multiple methods of casting a ballot available to all Americans who need it.
Democrats in Congress are continuing to push ahead with both of these bills despite Republican opposition, and if either passes this fall, voting rights history will be made once again.