A democracy without voting rights for all citizens is dead. The parallel between those words and the words of James 2:14-17 is intentional, “faith without works is dead.”
Black Americans know full well the disfranchisement and injustice that attend the absence of voting rights.
Prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Black Americans were discriminated against at the polls.
The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1870) provided voting rights to Black Americans. In the period following 1870, known as Reconstruction, Blacks voted in large numbers.
Throughout the south, due to their majorities, they elected Blacks to serve in state houses and in the U.S. House of Representatives. However, by 1877 the backlash against the Black vote led to full-scale voter suppression in Southern states.
Consequently, white supremacists imposed significant obstructions to the voting rights of Blacks across America – especially in Southern states with various schemes such as poll taxes, literacy tests, lack of accessibility to polling precincts and so on – to prevent them from voting.
Moreover, the emergence of Jim Crow laws throughout the South after 1877 essentially legalized voter suppression, gerrymandering and the subjection of Black Americans to untold horrors including mass incarceration, lynching, racial segregation in public and private facilities, and more.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a necessary correction to the voter suppression that prevailed throughout much of the South. It was groundbreaking in sanctioning federal oversight of voting practices in Southern states because history has shown that when federal oversight is absent, the voting rights of Black people are threatened.
The Voting Rights Act enabled millions of Black and Brown voters to participate freely in our electoral process. Subsequently, white supremacist lawmakers worked tirelessly for more than 50 years to overturn the Voting Rights Act.
When the Congress did not produce the desired results, they turned to the Supreme Court with a flurry of litigation – Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Abbott v. Perez (2018) and Brnovich v. DNC (2021).
The conservative majority on the court handed the white supremacists what they wanted, prompting Justice Elena Kagan to write in June 2021 that the Court “has treated no statute worse” than the Voting Rights Act.
The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed legislation — the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 (H.R. 4) — to restore critical provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the United States Supreme Court.
Passage of this legislation has been opposed by Republicans in Congress. How shameful. Just imagine how much stronger our democracy would be if Republicans cared as much about voting rights for all Americans as they care about gun rights.
The right to vote is a sacred hallmark of our democracy. Our vote is our voice for every citizen. Without a vote we have no agency, no currency, no power to exercise “the will of the people.”
White supremacists understand this fact and have mobilized their majorities — not only in the South but across the United States — to suppress the votes of Black and Brown Americans.
Why? Because when Black and Brown Americans vote, we overwhelmingly choose diverse candidates who prioritize freedom, social justice, equity, inclusion and full participation at all levels of our government by all people regardless of race, gender identity, ethnicity, creed and social class.
The backlash on the part of conservatives following the Barack Obama presidency and the promulgation of Donald Trump’s “big lie” is as threatening today as the backlash of 1877 and the onset of Jim Crow legislation.
While no fancy name has been assigned yet to the widespread unraveling of voting rights currently underway across America in several states, conservatives’ seeming hatred of diversity, combined with the fear of losing elections and political dominance, places our nation at risk as never before.
The need arises for people of faith and goodwill from all walks of life to engage our democratic process as never before. We must utilize our voices to say to elected officials at the state and local levels that voter suppression is morally wrong, and we must demand protections for all voters.
Racialized gerrymandering is morally wrong. Any law that alleges it is a crime to provide water to citizens waiting in long lines to cast their votes is not simply wrong, but inhumane.
As people of faith who are called to pursue justice, to love mercy and kindness, and to walk humbly with God, we must not keep silent when the freedoms of fellow citizens are at risk.
Whether or not we share the political perspectives of our neighbors, everyone has a right to freedom, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to vote.
We currently face the greatest test to our democracy and to our morality in our lifetimes.
Will we take the necessary actions now while there is time to defend voting rights for our fellow citizens?
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to Black History Month. The previous article in the series is:
Democracy Remains a Dream, Voting Rights a Nightmare | Starlette Thomas
Executive director of American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) and chief executive officer of Judson Press. He also leads ABHMS’ focus in the areas of public witness and advocacy.