Today is the anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, designed to ensure that African-Americans were able to exercise their right to vote. The Justice Department website today hails the measure, noting it “has been called the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress.” The law has gone through various extensions in 1970, 1975, and 1982, clarifying and increasing the effectiveness and scope of the legislation.
The history of the Voting Rights Act reminds us that the movement for equal rights doesn’t consist of one-time victories, but on-going work and evolution. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in 1870, already guaranteed the right to vote, but states were creative in their efforts to develop and implement hurdles aimed specifically to prevent African-Americans from exercising that right. Several attempts had been made during the years leading up to 1965 to address the issue, but ultimately, a federal law was needed that focused very specifically on voting rights. Adding to the urgency was the backdrop of violence that targeted voting rights advocates and civil rights demonstrators, as well as the prevalent discrimination faced by African-Americans.
The Voting Rights Act was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1966 when it noted that “widespread and persistent discrimination” couldn’t be addressed only on a case-by-case basis, but needed broader legislation.
The efforts to pass and implement the Voting Rights Act remind us today that the movement for equal rights is an ongoing process. There is no single bill or single incident that brings about justice; rather, this Act was the cumulative effort of legislation, activism, sacrifice and diligence. And efforts to ensure that voters continue to be enfranchised need to be ongoing as well, as transgender people well know.
We too face a situation where a patchwork of state laws simply isn’t adequate to address the violence and discrimination our community faces. For many of the same reasons that a federal law was needed in 1965 to ensure voting rights throughout the states, transgender people need federal legislation to ensure the right to equal employment and access to resources to address and prevent hate crimes. Widespread discrimination needs federal action to send a clear message that prejudice is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made our country a stronger and better place; yet, as successful at this law has been, we have more work to do to address the ongoing racism and other forms of oppression and prejudice that continue to plague the United States. Each positive and concrete step towards justice is to be honored and celebrated and each needs to inspire us to take the next step, and the one after that, and the one after that.