A blog about voting rights, affirmative action, and the future of democracy in America.
Back in the 1980s, during the heart of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, I was a Rutgers University student deeply affected by what was happening in this nation. There was the student-led anti-apartheid movement; there was the crack era and an alleged war on drugs; and there was an all-out assault, by conservative forces, on the victories of the Civil Rights Movement 20 years before.
Students from my school along with young people from other colleges linked with seasoned community organizers, and re-created the “Freedom Rides” of the early 1960s. But rather than test desegregation across Southern state lines as our forebears did, this time we rode into Alabama to challenge Reagan-era policies that were plainly and unfairly knocking countless Blacks off voter rolls.
I was far too young to fully grasp the magnitude of the Civil Rights Movement, of the work of Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Dr. King, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the N.A.A.C.P., and many other individuals and organizations. But I did know there was a time in American history when Black people were often blocked from voting, in spite of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution on the heels of the Civil War. I also knew, because my own family is from the South—South Carolina—that American racists had a field day denying and terrorizing African Americans for exercising even the most basic principles of citizenship in the 100 long years following Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Emancipation Proclamation.”
My mother grew up in that world, one where she was routinely called every racial curse you can think of—anything but her actual name; a world where she has vivid memories of those “For Whites Only” and “For Coloreds Only” signs. A world where some White Americans became drunk off power and privilege by undermining and manipulating the laws. Or just ignoring them. Anything not to share power and space in America with colored folks. This is our America, our shared history.
What I remember about that “Freedom Ride” was how intense it was, how Black Alabama natives like Rose and Hank Sanders spoke so passionately, so clearly, about the right to be treated as human beings. How civil rights efforts are not merely for Black people, but for every American.
How right they were. Since the 1980s we’ve come to see issues like immigration and gay marriage as extensions of the work of the Civil Rights Movement. Or at least I do. Certainly the actions and language in the battles for immigration rights, for marriage equality, are a direct extension of the profound and loving vision of Dr. King.
Indeed I am so very clear I would not be writing this blog this very moment had it not been for the Civil Rights Movement, for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and policies like Affirmative Action. Because my mother, single and working-class with a limited formal education, was forced to raise me in a Northern ghetto with barely anything. I inherited generations of poverty and misery that was passed like a family heirloom from my slave ancestors right to me.
As my mother told me yesterday when she learned of this new Supreme Court decision, “They know back in the old days ain’t no Black people had nothing’.” And the intention was to keep it that way, my mother said, and it seems to be that way again, she added.
Yet the lives sacrificed, the work done, made it possible for poor children like me to have access to pathways many take for granted: a free lunch program at my public schools; a quality education my mother could not have fathomed in her childhood; a special initiative in my native New Jersey called the Educational Opportunity Fund for “disadvantaged students,” without which I could have never afforded to attend Rutgers University; and a right to vote that I have exercised each year of my life since I turned 18, because my mother drilled into my head not to take it for granted, and because I’ve come to understand the historical weight of this singular act.
And little did I know, back in the day, as we drove from one Alabama county to another, to protect the vote, to assuage the fears of voters with sharp recollections of murders and house and church bombings in the 1950s and 1960s, that a generation later a Black man named Barack Obama would be elected president of the United States. No Civil Rights Movement, no Voting Rights Act of 1965, and there would be no Barack Obama.
So you can imagine my reaction when I heard the United States Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively murdering the dream of Dr. King and many others by striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote. This historic gesture now frees nine American states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. And it affects large Black populations beyond the South, like Brooklyn, where I’ve lived half my life and where you can see the fruits of the Voting Rights Act by the healthy number of Black elected officials in New York City’s biggest borough.
Essentially Chief Justice John Roberts and the other four justices, including the only Black member Clarence Thomas (himself a beneficiary of the Civil Rights Movement), ruled that the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed, that things have changed significantly. It is being left to Congress to determine where things ought to be fixed, if anywhere, going forward. The same Congress that has routinely blocked President Obama’s ability to govern. The same modern Congress that can barely agree on anything.
How tragic this Supreme Court decision around Voting Rights is, and how sad that as we approach the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in August, and celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation this entire year of 2013, that we are still having debates and conversations about voting rights in America. That just when we seem to be going forward, we go backwards instead.
What makes the ruling particularly disturbing is that it is a lie. Not only did I personally run for Congress here in Brooklyn in 2008 and 2010, but I also was keenly involved in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, working with get-out-the-vote efforts across the country. I cannot begin to tell you how many irregularities we saw around voting and voting rights, how much misinformation was broadcasted widely, to discourage Black, Latino, women, LGBTQ, formerly incarcerated persons, or poor people from various backgrounds from voting. Or to make it as hard as possible.
We need to call it what is: There are certain people in power, specifically White males of privilege in America, who’ve never believed in Dr. King’s dream, who do not want to see diverse people come together in any form, not as voters, not as citizens, not as human beings, and certainly not as a threat to a power structure they’ve maintained since the “founding” of this nation. They do not need to call themselves the Ku Klux Klan or the White Citizens Council in 2013. They simply wear business suits or the black robes of justice, talk about democracy as if they practice it themselves, then they do everything they can to concentrate and consolidate power in the hands of a few. That is the crux of the matter.
Thus since those years when I was in college these efforts to sweep away the very small victories of the Civil Rights Movements have taken on the shape of returning America to “faith” and “values”, of the language of “taking back our country”; of protecting us from “illegal” immigrants; of only honoring and acknowledging love and “marriage” as defined by them; of suggesting that Affirmative Action, designed to correct centuries of racism in America, is itself racist against White Americans. And far too many White Americans, and not only conservative Whites, either, have unwittingly bought into these lies, only able to see the world through the prism of their skin color and skin privilege, as dominant today as it was in the years of Dr. King, albeit it in different forms. The scenes have changed but many of the racial themes remain the same.
Yes, I sincerely believe in my heart and soul that we are all sisters and brothers. This is my life work as an activist, as a writer, as a speaker, to bring people together, to be a bridge-builder. But it will not be that way if what the Supreme Court did to the Voting Rights Act is as not as offensive to you as it is to me. If you do not protest it, by whatever method you can, as matter-of-factly as I am doing. If you, we, do not understand that you are not free if I am not free, that I am not free if you are not free.
In the meantime what will happen now is that states will move to implement unfair voter I.D. laws that will throw us back to the days of Black Americans having to prove they are citizens by “tests” created by local White males running those jurisdictions. What will happen now, because of the very ambiguous Supreme Court decision earlier in the week on Affirmative Action, will be more and more lawsuits filed by Whites citing racial discrimination in college admissions procedures.
The great irony of this last matter is that I make my living doing speeches, workshops, and residencies at colleges and universities nationwide, and have been doing so for the past two decades. I have not witnessed, with my own eyes, the slots being taken at the table of American higher education that some are claiming. In fact many of these schools are terribly underdeveloped in the area of multiculturalism, with barely any students of color on their campuses, and even more deficient in terms of how their curriculum, regardless of major, speaks, or not, to the contributions of every human culture, and not simply one dominant group.
But, as my mother said to me as a child, if a lie is allowed to go on and on, unchecked and unchallenged, for a long period of time it suddenly becomes the truth. And this is what the right-wing movement in America has been doing for all intents and purposes from the moment Dr. King was killed in April 1968. They have been figuring out, by any means necessary, how to murder a dream before it is ever allowed to fully bloom.
Kevin Powell, activist, writer, public speaker, is the author or editor of 11 books, including “Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on twitter @kevin_powell