“When the Declaration of Independence was written these words were used: ‘All men are created equal...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.’ Ever since, the greatest hesitation of American democracy has been to apply that world ‘all’ regardless of race, religion, or region. It is a disturbing little word and it has irritated our souls for 200 years. It will not let us go and we cannot let it go. It has given us no rest nor will it until we can say ‘all’...with complete abandon.”
Our Quote of the Week emphasizes a struggle for equality and universal rights that comes to mind today as we mark the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
Sargent Shriver spoke these words at his 1961 Address to the Catholic Interracial Council in Chicago. They were part of his introduction in a speech that focuses on Peace Corps recruitment, but they resonate today as we remember President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965.
Sargent Shriver frequently mentioned the promise of equality and universal rights embedded in the founding of the United States, noting that this promise was yet to be fulfilled. The struggle to live up to this promise is ongoing when it comes to voting rights. To be sure, we have come a long way since the founding of the country. While the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution made no explicit references to voting, the Amendments to the Constitution reflect the ways in which we have progressed over the centuries:
- The Fourteenth Amendment (July 9th, 1868) guaranteed citizenship (and therefore the right to vote) to men “born or naturalized in the United States.”
- The Fifteenth Amendment (February 3, 1870) ensured that the right to vote could not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
- The Nineteenth Amendment (August 18, 1920) proclaimed that voting rights could not be denied on the basis of sex, allowing women to vote for the first time in the US.
- The Twenty-sixth Amendment (July 1, 1971) granted all US citizens 18 years of age and older the right to vote.
The passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 represented a major milestone in voting rights and civil rights. It aimed to protect the voting rights of African Americans and of other marginalized groups whose right to vote had historically been suppressed by unreasonable and / or illegal means (poll taxes; impossible literacy and other tests such as the “jelly bean test"; overly-strict and inconsistent ID laws; even armed intimidation).
In recent years, there have been many attacks against voting rights at the state and federal level. In 2013, the US Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby v Holder case attacked parts of the of the Voting Rights Act, going as far as declaring section 4(b) unconstitutional. And more recent widespread but unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in the 2020 Presidential election have prompted at least 18 states to pass votes that limit access to voting.
The right to vote is part of the foundation of a democratic society. When that foundation is attacked, it is up to all of us to raise our voices and to act to protect it. The Voting Rights Act reminds us of what we can achieve, and what we must continue to protect.