Just 40 years ago, on a bridge outside Selma, Ala., civil rights leaders and activists took to the streets in a peaceful protest for voting rights for African-Americans. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the way to Montgomery, they were met with clubs, snarling dogs and violence. They were beaten and many severely injured.
But the activists did not march in vain. On Aug. 6, 1965, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, hailed by many as perhaps the most important civil rights law enacted since the Emancipation Proclamation.
The most fundamental right of our democratic system of government is this right of citizens to participate in the political process. The 15th Amendment ensures the right of every American citizen, regardless of race, color or "previous condition of servitude," to participate in the electoral process. However, some local governments have actively and in some cases aggressively tried to disenfranchise African-American and minority voters.
Congress needs to renew the provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which are coming up for reauthorization next year and which ensure that our nation's government reflects the views, the values and, most importantly, the votes of the people it serves.
Of all the civil rights legislation that the nation has enacted over the past four decades, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is arguably the most important. Yes, every major piece of civil rights legislation has helped to eliminate injustices, but the Voting Rights Act empowers Americans to take action against injustices by electing those who pledge to eliminate them and removing those who perpetuate them.
Before the Voting Rights Act became law, African-Americans in the South were prevented from voting by a battery of tactics - poll taxes, literacy tests and the crudest forms of intimidation. From the Southwest to some urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest, Latinos were discouraged from voting by techniques that exploited the vulnerabilities of low-income newcomers for whom English was a second language. Both groups were also the targets of districting designed to dilute their ability to elect officials of their own choosing - a fundamental freedom that too many Americans take for granted.