Proclaiming Sept. 22 “National Voter Registration Day,” President Barack Obama commemorated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act on Thursday by calling on every American to continue to fight for and – most importantly, exercise – their fundamental right to participate in the nation’s democracy.
“There are all kinds of battles we have to fight,” Obama said Thursday in a speech at the White House, “but we miss the forest for the trees if we don’t also recognize that huge chunks of us citizens just give away our power. We’d rather complain than do something about it. We won’t vote, then we’ll talk about the terrible political process that isn’t doing anything.”
“I like grumbling and complaining … I can’t always do it in public,” Obama joked. “But what I know is it doesn’t get anything accomplished.”
Standing alongside Loretta Lynch, the nation’s first female African-American attorney general, and Rep. John Lewis, who helped pave the way for President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the landmark civil rights law, Obama hailed the era of progress ushered in by the Voting Rights Act.
But “on the ground,” Obama said, “there are still too many ways in which people are discouraged from voting.”
The president reiterated criticisms leveled in a moving op-ed for Medium, published earlier in the day, in which he pointed to state laws that roll back early voting or require potential voters to present certain forms of photo ID as “provisions specifically designed to make it harder for some people to vote.” He also bemoaned the 2013 Supreme Court decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of racial discrimination to secure “pre-clearance,” or pre-approval, by the federal government before changing their election laws. Since that ruling, numerous states have implemented voting requirements that critics feel disproportionately burden low-income, minority, and younger voters.
“One order of business is for our Congress to pass an updated version of the Voting Rights Act that would correct some of the problems that have arisen,” Obama said to applause. “At the state and local levels,” he later added, “we’ve got to fight back against efforts to make it harder to vote.”
The anniversary of the Voting Rights Act comes just one day after a three-judge panel on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a new voter ID law in Texas — one of the strictest of its kind — discriminated against black and Hispanic people, thus violating Section 2 of act. Civil rights advocates hailed Wednesday’s decision as an important victory for the 1965 law and its lingering power. A more telling test of its reach, however, may come from a different case out of North Carolina, where civil rights advocates and the Department of Justice are challenging measures seen as less overtly discriminatory — such as cutbacks to early voting and same-day registration, both of which have served as important tools for minority voters.
Interspersed within Obama’s Medium article were photos of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march from Selma to Montgomery, seen as a major turning point in the effort to defeat Jim Crow. Earlier this year, Obama and his family marched alongside civil rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where a half-century earlier nonviolent protesters clashed with police over the right to vote.
“We owe them a great debt,” the first black president wrote of activists such as Jimmie Lee Jackson, John Lewis, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I am certain I wouldn’t be where I am today without their sacrifices.”