“But even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over… It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because … really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.” President Lyndon Johnson, March 15, 1965
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of America’s proudest moments. On a Monday in March, before a joint session of Congress, President Lyndon Johnson validated and further ignited the hopes of a movement by using one simple yet powerful phrase: “We shall overcome.” This declaration united him with the millions of Americans who were wounded by our intense legacy of racial discrimination. He announced that injustice was no longer the dilemma of a small group of people. It was our collective issue, for the nation would never rise beyond its ability to treat all of its citizens with dignity.
So, have we overcome?
The impact of the Voting Rights Act was immediate for millions of Americans. African-American registration immediately rose from 29.3 percent in 1965 to just over 52 percent in 1967. In 1970, the first year this data was collected, there were 1,469 African-American elected officials. In 2011, there were 10,500. While the nation, as a whole, has seen total voting participation drop since that time (69.3% in 1964 as compared to 56.5% in 2012), African-American participation has increased (58.5% in 1964 as compared to 62% in 2012).
Obviously, the level of voting discrimination that existed during the time of this bill’s passage has diminished. Yet America’s challenges to voting have taken a new form. As a New York Times series recently explored, many of the gains of the Voting Rights Act are facing new challenges. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling has allowed a host of Southern states to change their election laws without federal approval. As a result, states like North Carolina have reduced early voting, cut same-day registration and ended a law that allowed ballots to be counted when filed at the wrong precinct.
America’s challenges to voting have taken a new form.
In addition to these measures, the most egregious national threat to full voter inclusion may be the permanent marginalization faced by Americans with criminal records. Currently, nearly 6 million Americans - including 2 million African Americans - are precluded from voting based on prior felonies. It is difficult to fully understand why the United States is one of the few Western democracies that continues this policy. In theory, the permanent stripping of these rights represents a drastic consequence of breaking the law. Yet what practical purpose does it serve when the allocation of resources and rights is so heavily dependent upon the vote? It contributes to the creation of a permanent underclass that is forever locked out of full citizenship.
The theological concept of common grace requires us to question the justice of this practice. Without the possibility of redemption and reconciliation, what hope do former prisoners have? It is clear that these concepts not only have significant implications for people of faith in the spiritual realm, but are universal as they represent the basis for hope in this life as well. Common grace extends to all, regardless of religious and political affiliations or past mistakes. It should encourage us to provide more opportunities for the disenfranchised to participate in the critical functions of our democracy, not less.
Quite simply, we should allow those who have paid their debt to society to vote. In 2015, the promises of the Voting Rights Act can best be protected by permitting these citizens, of all ethnicities, to exercise this right and responsibility. It represents one of our greatest opportunities to achieve Johnson’s goal of true electoral equality.