Mourning the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

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By Cleo Brown

My concern for voting rights began early.

I was only seven when on a dark night in August 1962, some men pulled alongside us and shot into our car, striking my father. My father had returned from a Federal voting rights hearing earlier that day at which the Registrar of Voters had been told that he would have to register African Americans. For almost 80 years, no Black people had been allowed to vote in my hometown, an almost all Black town in Louisiana. Years before Selma, my father — a small-town preacher — convinced Attorney General Robert Kennedy to file suit against our town and state to allow the basic right of citizenship: the right to vote.

After the shooting, I endured four years of terror at the hands of people who did not see Black people as equals. I went to bed every night thinking that I might be murdered or trapped and burned in my house. By morning I always supported my father’s work, even though it put me in harm’s way. Being around adults who tackled problems empowered me.

Why should we mourn on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of protection legislation ever passed? When I first contemplated this milestone, I envisioned a great celebration. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Act by nullifying the critical requirement for “preclearance,” enabling states and counties to begin changing voting laws and procedures without preclearance/prior review for equity by the Justice Department. Individual citizens or organizations must now fund efforts to roll back these changes, an onerous task.

I mourn this anniversary because the Supreme Court’s decision denied equal access to the ballot.

I mourn because more than half the states already enacted voting restrictions.

I mourn because a single individual, Edward Blum, disturbed over losing a Houston election, created an organization that filed suit to remove the critical part of the Voting Rights Act—undoing the work for which my father and many others gave their lives.

I mourn because this July, Congressmen seeking to address voting rights in Congress were told to go through the House Judiciary Committee, whose Chair – a representative from Virginia – saw no threat to protection of voting rights, a clear falsehood.

I mourn because those with the most to gain from the denial of voting rights must now grant permission to restore those rights.

I mourn because someone tried to kill me and my family on that dark August night because they understood the power of the vote yet many of my sons’ generation do not.

I mourn the loss of an occasion to celebrate the advancement of freedom and of democracy.