SACRAMENTO – More than 100 activists joined members of the Legislative Black Caucus, NAACP, Urban League and other statewide organizations last week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historic Voting Rights Act, groundbreaking legislation many observers regard as the most important achievement to emerge from the turbulent civil rights movement.
“As we see attempts to roll back voting rights in a number of states, it’s a good time to reflect on the widespread disenfranchisement of minorities and the struggle that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), speaking from the steps of the State Capitol.
“We need to revisit the history and heroes of that struggle and recommit ourselves to honor their sacrifice by exercising our right to decide who makes the decisions that affect our lives,” she added.
For many activists, California’s recent decision to restore voting rights to tens of thousands of felons serving sentences under community supervision makes marking the historic legislation even more special. The new policy comes at a time when there is growing bi-partisan support across the country for extending voting rights to ex-felons.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla made the announcement after the state settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and several civil rights groups on behalf of 60,000 felons.
“If we are serious about slowing the revolving door at our jails and prisons, and serious about reducing recidivism, we need to engage – not shun – former offenders,” Padilla said. “Voting is a key part of that engagement.”
Voting rights advocates celebrated throughout the state, honoring civil rights activists whose actions led to former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965.
At the largest commemoration in Los Angeles, Peggy Trotter Dammond Preacely – a civil rights activist since she was a teenager in the 1960s – urged black people to continue to fight for equal voting rights.
“I speak to all of us, all of you, about how critical it is that we each find our voice and stand for something,” said Preacely, a former member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, “This is the time; this is the place to work for equal rights.”
More than a dozen speakers took to the pulpit at Holman United Methodist Church and spoke of the importance of making sure that all Americans have a right to vote.
Speakers included U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles City Council members Marqueece Harris-Dawson and David Ryu, SCLC-Southern California President Rev. William D. Smart Jr., CORE California Chair Adrian Dove, Los Angeles Urban League President Nolan Rollins, and SCLC-Southern California Board Chairman Alice Golf.
The landmark legislation outlawed the discriminatory voting practices taking place in the Deep South after the Civil War. The act was designed to enforce voting rights cemented by the 15th amendment to the U.S Constitution, but voting advocates say more work needs to be done, especially considering the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the Shelby v. Holder case.
The case’s verdict effectively nullified a section of the act that required certain states and jurisdictions to get pre-approval from the federal government before making electoral changes, such as changing voting requirements.
Empowered by the Supreme Court’s ruling, meanwhile, several states have enacted laws requiring certain types of identification to vote, cut back on early voting days and limited who can register voters – a move many observers see as an effort to disenfranchise black voters.
Calling the Supreme Court’s ruling a mistake, Bass said she supports the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, a bill that would add a provision to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 limiting the power of states to amend federal voting laws. That bill currently is being debated in the U.S. House.