During this very week 50 years ago, Americans — many of them students and young folks — gathered in the state of Mississippi alongside civil rights leaders, activists, local citizens and others as they collectively engaged in an extensive voter registration project. Freedom Summer, as it was aptly titled, helped change the course of this nation. Because of Mississippi’s horrendously low black voter registration rate, this state became symbolic of the larger systemic issue of voter disenfranchisement across the country. Today, 50 years on from that historic summer, we are facing many of the same challenges in a host of states. After so many marched, organized, petitioned, registered voters, and risked their lives and livelihoods — and some even died — how do we as a country allow their victories to be stripped away before our very eyes? If there was ever a time to have a renewed Freedom Summer, that time is now, in 2014.
In all my years of civil rights work, I never thought I’d see the day that the Voting Rights Act would be effectively gutted and transformed. Last year the Supreme Court did just that when it declared Section 5 of the Act (which requires areas with a history of discrimination to receive federal approval before making voting changes) unconstitutional. States have effectively been able to institute new requirements and make new regulations without federal approval — and you’d better believe they have been busy doing so. While there has been pushback against this and other measures to block voters from the polls, at least 19 states have enacted harsh voting requirements like new ID laws. Making it more difficult for blacks, the poor, the elderly and other minorities to participate, these laws have caused us to regress as a society and forget about the goals of that Freedom Summer 50 years past. It is up to us to put an end to these draconian measures. We must urge Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 and restore protections for our right to vote.
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