In a lead up to the 50th Anniversary of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was signed on August 6th by President Lyndon B. Johnson, hundreds gathered at the Smithsonian Museum of American History on Tuesday evening to recognize and reflect on one of America’s most important civil rights achievements. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill was joined by Ari Berman of The Nation, Professor Spencer Crew of George Mason University, and Alabama State Senator Henry “Hank” Sanders on a panel moderated by CNN’s Donna Brazile to discuss how far the country has come in protecting the right of African-Americans and other populations to vote and what must be done to protect that right against voter suppression efforts.
“The history of this country is marked by the period before 1965 and the period afterwards”, said Ifill. “The line of demarcation is set by the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which finally introduced the opportunity for African-American citizens to participate in the political process. With the passage of the Act, America became, finally, a democracy. Without question, the Voting Rights Act is the most important piece of civil rights legislation passed in the 20th Century.”
Despite the historic impact of the Voting Rights Act, unfettered access to the polls still remains elusive for many, especially for African-Americans and Latinos, and especially in southern states with a deep legacy of voter suppression. Next year, will mark the first presidential election in fifty years that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act will not apply following the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision. Section 5 required certain “covered” areas with a history of racial discrimination—mostly in the south—to get federal approval before making changes to their voting systems. “Unless Congress acts this year, 2016 will be the first Presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act,” said Brazile.
LDF played a pivotal role in the events leading up to the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act. In response to Governor George Wallace of Alabama’s effort to appeal the order permitting the march to go forward, LDF briefed and argued the opposition in court and designed the march route and logistics to comply with the judge’s order.
Fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, LDF continues its work to empower African-American voters through litigation and advocacy. In 2011, LDF filed a case on behalf of black voters in Fayette County, Georgia and, in 2014, the court ordered district-based voting, which resulted in the election of the first ever African-American County Commissioner. Also, in 2014, LDF successfully challenged SB 14, Texas’s strict photo ID law that allows individuals to use concealed gun licenses to vote, but not state-issued student identification cards. The trial court agreed with LDF that the photo ID law was intentionally designed by Texas to disproportionately disfranchise Black and Latino voters and operates as an unconstitutional poll tax. LDF is awaiting a ruling from the Fifth Circuit in this case that could potentially affect over 1 million eligible voters in the state of Texas. And in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, LDF continues to challenge the at-large voting method that submerges the Black vote and sustains a racially segregated judiciary, denying African-American voters the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice.
LDF Associate Director-Counsel Janai Nelson presented opening remarks, noting that “this is truly a historic moment for a great many reasons. While many know LDF and our founder, the late Thurgood Marshall, as the mastermind behind Brown v. Board of Education, our legacy in the area of voting rights and, particularly in securing the passage and then leading the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act for over five decades is nothing short of extraordinary.”
The collaborative event between LDF and the Smithsonian is part of a series of events this year to commemorate LDF’s 75th year as the first and foremost civil rights law organization.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is not a part of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) although LDF was founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. Since 1957, LDF has been a completely separate organization. Please refer to us in all media attributions as the “NAACP Legal Defense Fund” or “LDF”.