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New commission to investigate threats to voting rights

2/2/2018, 7:21 a.m.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first speech at the Lincoln Memorial was not his celebrated 1963 address at the March ...

By Barbara Arnwine and John Nichols

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first speech at the Lincoln Memorial was not his celebrated 1963 address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Six years earlier, when he was still a relative newcomer on the national scene, Dr. King addressed 25,000 civil rights activists who gathered at the memorial for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom on May 17, 1957.

History has not accorded quite so much attention to the speech Dr. King delivered that day, but the tenor of these times invites us to embrace its message once more.

Noting the “open defiance” that was preventing implementation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Dr. King suggested that the “betrayal” of disenfranchised Americans by politicians of both parties offered the ultimate argument for why the struggle for voting rights is so essential to the broader struggle for economic and social justice, environmental protection and peace.

“The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote,” declared Dr. King.

He continued:

“Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.

“Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will, by the power of our vote, write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.

“Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.

The 28-year-old pastor, whose 89th birthday was celebrated last month, delivered more than great oratory that day in 1957. He outlined a strategy for justice campaigners that would extend through the 1960s and beyond.

The achievement of full voting rights — and of a political process that encouraged participation by all Americans — became an essential goal for African-Americans who battled against Jim Crow segregation. It also galvanized the movements that took inspiration from the civil rights campaigners of the 1960s and demanded representation for Latinos, Native Americans, young people, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, people of varying faith traditions and people with disabilities.

This vision of voter justice came to be broadly accepted in the 1960s and early 1970s as Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and as the overwhelming majority of states approved the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned the poll tax and finally barred economic barriers to voting, and the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18.

While individual states retained troublesome barriers to political empowerment, so many changes were made in this country that it seemed as if the promise of voter justice was on the march. Reasonable people had every right to believe that this progress would continue and that the promise of democracy might be made real for all Americans.