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Keep the civil rights torch lit 50 years later

By Jack Schlossberg Special to CNN | 8/1/2013, 1:16 p.m.
The March on Washington forced the issue of civil rights onto the national agenda and into the lives of every American of every race.

My whole life, I have heard that if one person in every precinct had voted differently or if one less supporter had made it to the polls, my grandfather would not have been elected president in 1960. Voting matters.

In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court showed a lack of respect for the efforts of all those who, both in government and out, worked over the generations to uphold America's ongoing efforts to fulfill its promise of equality under the law. The ruling effectively erased a landmark piece of legislation that secured the culmination of a century-long struggle toward justice and equality for African-Americans and minorities in America.

Beyond its implications in the present, Voting Rights Act itself is a monument to all those who fought for a voice and a vote.

Not since Reconstruction had our government acted so strongly in the name of civil rights. In his majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts explained how successful the act has been in limiting racial disenfranchisement, which "is no longer the problem it once was." He conceded that "these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act" itself. That argument makes logical sense only if one believes that discrimination in voting in America no longer exists. But, I think most of us would agree that is not that case.

The law was successful because it created an effective protection against racism by allowing the federal government to stop disenfranchisement before it became law, not after it became part of a local electoral system. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissenting opinion, eliminating this law is "like throwing away your umbrella in a rain storm."

The act's effectiveness makes it an important symbol of the good that government can do. It reminds Americans that their government is capable of effective action and is committed to fostering a genuine democracy for everyone.

The civil rights movement didn't end on August 6, 1965. It continued because the work of creating a truly equal country never ends. Racism plagued America throughout the '60s, into the '70s, through the '80s; it continued in the '90s and in the first decade of the new millennium; and it persists today.

King's dream was not that he would be able to stop marching in a few years, once things got a little bit better. Racism and inequality may not be as severe as before, but when "stand your ground" laws in Florida protect those many believe to be guilty of racially motivated violence, then surely there is work to be done. And when state legislatures put new barriers in the way of voters, turning them away for not having certain forms of ID, then clearly we have yet to perfect the very process that makes America the democracy it promises to be for all of its citizens.

On Wednesday, August 28, let's remember all the work that still needs to be done.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jack Schlossberg.