In 2012, Congressman John Lewis came to the Buckeye state to encourage Ohioans to exercise their right to vote. At a dinner in Youngstown, Ohio he told the story of his march across the bridge from Selma to Montgomery. The Congressman recalled having a backpack filled with an apple, an orange, two books, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Having been part of this non-violent movement for social change for so long, he knew he was going to be arrested. Never did he imagine, however, the level of brutality that ascended upon him and his fellow marchers that day. Congressman Lewis told us his story to remind us of the sacrifices of life and limb that were made for free and unfettered access to the ballot box.
A few weeks ago, on the 50th Anniversary of the Selma Civil Rights March (also known as Bloody Sunday), Congressman Lewis went back to that same bridge in Alabama to remind the country and the world of the sacrifices made to ensure the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Tragically, the very gains made by these freedom fifty years ago was stripped away the moment the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby vs. Holder in 2013. The decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act immediately opened the floodgates to voter suppression legislation targeting minority and low-income voters in Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
The manipulation of the electorate is nothing new, but in recent years its scope has expanded dramatically. And it’s no longer relegated to traditional southern states. In 2012, Ohio gained national attention for all the wrong reasons when our “Secretary of Suppression” Jon Husted appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court to take away the last three days of early voting. He wielded the power of his office to create an atmosphere of confusion, chaos and intimidation, intent upon discouraging participation in the electoral process.
In 2014, Husted and the GOP-controlled legislature doubled-down on their voter suppression tactics, from the use of directives that confused and complicated the voting process to the passage of legislation denying early voting opportunities.
These twenty-first century, Jim Crow-like attempts to thwart access to the ballot box must be stopped. The truth is, our democracy is stronger when more people participate and when everyone’s views are heard. Making it harder for the most vulnerable voters to participate in the political process inevitably leads to policies and policymakers that do not represent the interests of all people. This is why Congress must act to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act.
Our nation is eroding the progress made from battles fought and won generations ago. This is unacceptable. We are a nation built on the premise of justice and equality for all. The ballot box is the symbolic manifestation of that promise. It is the only place where our gender, race, sexual-orientation, religion, or socio-economic status does not matter. We must protect this great equalizer.
As President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.”
Fifty years later, we are at another turning point. Members of Congress can turn their backs on history, or they can continue the forward march that began in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. We cannot rest until the Voting Rights Act is restored and strengthened. We owe this to ourselves, to future generations and to the men, women and children who sacrificed their bodies on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Nina Turner is the Ohio Democratic Party Chair of Party Engagement