August 6, 1965 is a day etched in my heart forever.
This year, on the 57th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, my father’s assistant Marie Fehmer Chiarodo wrote me. She had seen photos of me standing behind my father as he signed this historic legislation into law, and she recalled how President Johnson had asked her to make sure I accompanied him to the Congress to witness this great moment. He told her that I “would want to be a part of this.”
My father was so right.
Witnessing the signing of the Voting Rights Act is one of the great privileges of my life. I was there when Civil Rights patriots joined Democratic and Republican legislators and the President of The United States to ensure the right to vote for all Americans, regardless of their race or color.
I remember my father giving one of the first pens used to sign the legislation to Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. As an idealistic 18-year-old, I asked my father why did he give it to Dirksen rather than to one of the great Civil Rights Leaders there?
Always a great teacher, my father admonished me- “Senator Dirksen deserved the pen. Without Dirksen and the Republican Legislators support the great civil rights leaders and I would have only had a bill- we would never have had a law.” That day I learned the importance of good people sharing the credit for a good cause.
57 years after that fateful day I remembered that another Texas President, George Walker Bush signed the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act on July 27, 2006. It was named after three great Black American women who had given their lives to the enhancement of civil rights- Fannie Lou Hammer, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Once more, a caring President shared the credit of a noble cause.
That day President Bush quoted Willie Bolden, the 81-year-old grandson of slaves. In the spring of 1966, Bolden cast his first vote in Alabama’s Democratic primary saying, “It felt good to me. It made me think I was sort of somebody.” I remember President Bush saying, “In the America promised by our founders, every citizen is a somebody, and every generation has a responsibility to add its own chapter to the unfolding story of freedom.”
So it was with my father’s generation. So it was with President George W. Bush. For 48 years, both sides of the political aisle worked together to ensure Voting Rights for all our citizens.
Alas, on June 2013 the Supreme Court decision of Shelby County v. Holder effectively stripped the heart out of the Voting Rights Act. This decision opened the door to state’s invoking legislation that threatens the right to vote, especially for people of color, the elderly, the poor and disabled.
State legislatures one after another got on the bandwagon of limiting the number of ballot drop off boxes, voting hours, imposing rule after rule that made it harder to vote. They claim these rules prevent voting fraud despite no evidence of significant voter fraud or that these rules would prevent it.
Those who believe the last Presidential Election was stolen have won in many Republican primaries effectively dashing a two-party system of a government capable of working together.
Yet our country still claims to be the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” In this nearly 250-year-old republic we still fail on that promise. When is America going to make good on our promise? Why doesn’t this break the heart of all who love our Democracy?
Working people still can’t get paid time off to go cast their vote to determine their futures. Redistricting has created artificial districts where representatives live so far away from their constituencies their ability to serve them is dramatically impeded. In too many states if you don’t have a driver’s license, because you don’t have access to a car, you have to take unpaid time off work to get a government issued photo ID in order to vote. This is essentially a tax on voting for too many poor people especially people of color, the elderly or disabled.
Voting Rights should not be the cause of just those who personally know the pain of discrimination. Voting Rights should be the cause of all who believe in America’s promise.
For “when there is bigotry towards some there is a loss for us all.” “In the America promised by our founders, every citizen is a somebody, and every generation has a responsibility to add its own chapter to the unfolding story of freedom.”
Now is our time to be counted for freedom. Every American must actively support voting rights for every citizen. Every voter counts as does every vote.