Julian Bond, center, in the SNCC days of the early 1960s
Voting Rights: Which Side Are You On?
By Julian Bond
Progressive America Rising via Chicago Tribune
Dec. 18, 2011 – Our democracy is threatened today in ways I could not imagine we’d face in the 21st century, when back in 1960, as a 20-year-old, I helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were called the "shock troops of the civil rights movement" and our sit-ins and other nonviolent protests energized the movement. A new generation of youth is now occupying the public debate, changing how we discuss social and economic justice, forcing us to rethink class and privilege. But they dare not take for granted the hard-won gains of a previous generation, who secured the vote as a fundamental right, not a privilege only for those with means.
In the 1960s, at great personal risk, we fought poll taxes and literacy tests to ensure that every eligible American could vote. Today, there is a nationwide attempt to dismantle the protections put in place by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In addition, in the last few years some states have passed laws requiring government-issued IDs to vote. Millions of Americans don’t have these documents.
There is no evidence that voter impersonation — the only thing voter IDs at the polls could prevent — exists. These laws are intended as a barrier to the ballot.
Other states are limiting early voting, making it harder for working people to vote. Some states are making it so difficult to register new voters that the League of Women Voters won’t register people in Florida for the first time in its history.
These new voter-suppression laws make it difficult for poor people, racial minorities, the elderly, students and the disabled to vote because of added costs and undue burdens, in essence a 21st century poll tax. This is a direct assault on democracy and the biggest threat voters have faced since the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The overt obstacles of the Jim Crow era and the voter-suppression efforts today are different only in their tactics, not their intent. In the 1960s, intimidation came from fire hoses, police dogs and a culture of white supremacy. Today, the tactics may be less obvious but they are equally insidious. The results are the same: Fewer people on the margins of our democracy will vote, tilting the system even more toward the powerful interests it already serves.
In America’s first national election in 1792, approximately 5 percent of the adult population (white, male, landowners) was eligible to vote. Expanding access to the ballot has been a hallmark of our history ever since. From Reconstruction-era reforms giving the vote to nonwhite men, to suffrage securing the vote for women, the civil rights struggle to end Jim Crow and language and access accommodations made for naturalized citizens and the disabled, wave after wave of Americans have claimed this fundamental right.
In the 1960s, as we marched for our freedoms we sang of them. As I watch another generation of youth protest and drum and chant, I am reminded of one lyric in particular: "My daddy was a freedom fighter, and I’m my daddy’s son. And I will fight for freedom, until everybody’s won. Which side are you on, boy? Which side are you on?"
When it comes to preserving the power of each American’s right to vote, and encouraging everyone eligible to vote, which side are you on?
Julian Bond is a professor at American University and the University of Virginia and chairman emeritus of the NAACP.
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