'Civil Right No. 1:' Dr. King's Unfinished Voting Rights Revolution
21 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2018 Last revised: 17 Apr 2018
Date Written: January 23, 2018
On March 14, 1965, one week after “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama and one day before President Lyndon Johnson delivered a now-famous speech to Congress calling for passage of the Voting Rights Act, Dr. Martin Luther King published an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled Civil Right No. 1: The Right to Vote. Dr. King not only described the severe barriers to enfranchisement that African-Americans faced in the American South and elsewhere; he also offered a vision of what full enfranchisement would mean for African-Americans. Declaring that “[v]oting is the foundation stone for political action,” Dr. King saw the vote not as an end within itself but as the means to a better life for African-Americans and other Americans. He predicted that that “[o]ur vote would place in Congress true representatives of the people who would legislate for the Medicare, housing, schools and jobs required by all men of any color.” This was consistent with Dr. King’s belief that the vote would help African-Americans, many mired in poverty after two centuries of slavery and government and private discrimination, achieve greater economic success, peace, and prosperity.
Fifty-three years after Dr. King wrote Civil Right No. 1, African-Americans’ access to the franchise, economic security, and government responsiveness have improved markedly but not nearly enough. Gone are the literacy tests, poll taxes, violence, and intimidation which stymied African-American efforts to register and to vote, especially in the American South. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, many more African-Americans and African-American-preferred candidates serve in Congress, in state legislatures, and on local elected bodies. African-Americans have nonetheless failed to fully achieve the voting rights, economic parity, and political responsiveness that Dr. King envisioned in his 1965 article.
The three primary reasons for the unfinished revolution are: the endurance of private discrimination, which first the Democrats and now the Republican Party have used for political ends; a conservative Supreme Court’s narrow reading of voting rights laws and chary interpretation of the Constitution’s protections for voting rights, which have allowed discrimination and a new wave of voter suppression laws to flourish; and the continued state-by-state battle to fully end post-sentence felon disenfranchisement laws which help perpetuate a cycle of poverty and political powerlessness. These three reasons for the lack of full progress reinforce one another in important ways.
The Essay, prepared for a symposium at the University of Memphis commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, first sets out in more detail Dr. King’s vision of what securing the vote would mean for African-American voters beyond the important symbolic value of treating all voters with equal rights and dignity. It then briefly catalogs the great success achieved in the five decades since Dr. King and others helped bring about the voting rights revolution, but also shows that Dr. King’s vision remains partially unfulfilled. It then turns to the three principal reasons for the unfulfilled vision and asks what it would take to more fully achieve his vision over the next fifty years. Even if “the arc of the moral universe” eventually “bends toward justice,” vigilance and activism remain necessary, as courts retreat from protecting minority voting rights, private racism remains an enduring problem, and the achieving equal political and economic rights requires a state-by-state slog.
Keywords: Voting Rights Act, voting rights, Martin Luther King, Supreme Court, racial polarization
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