Sixty years after the March on Washington, which became a catalyst for landmark voting rights action, advocates are sounding alarms about voter suppression and the rollback of voting rights protections, particularly those affecting Black and minority voters.
In the six decades since protesters descended on the capital to protest inequality and advocate for civil rights, the nation has seen significant suffrage gains for Black and minority voters — including the landmark Voting Rights Act that went into force two years after the March, outlawing literacy tests and other measures states imposed after the Civil War to stop minorities from casting their ballots.
But more recent battles over gerrymandering and additional requirements making voting more difficult underscore ongoing voting rights challenges, despite the progress made since the march, advocates say.
“I would have hoped we were further along than we are, which does not mean that we’ve not seen some progress over 60 years and really in relationship to the vision that my father enumerated of freedom and justice and equality for all humankind,” said Martin Luther King III, the chairman of the board of the Drum Major Institute and the son of the prominent civil rights leader.
“But I can’t imagine that he would have envisioned necessarily that in 2023 that our nation would be at loggerheads in relationship to fighting to protect and preserve democracy, fighting to expand the right to vote, to make it easier to vote as opposed to making it harder to vote as some states have done, fighting to regain the right to choose, fighting just for people to have basic rights, the LGBTQI community and the list goes on and on,” he continued.
A recent standoff over Alabama’s congressional district map has demonstrated both the success and difficulties for voting rights activists.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down a Republican-drawn congressional map in Alabama with a 5-4 decision that the map likely violated the Voting Rights Act with unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, affirming a lower court ruling that ordered a new map with an additional Black-majority district.
“The story of civil rights and voting rights is one of cyclical progress, or cyclical movements, so it’s not a story of linear progress. As you push forward, there is always a moment of retrenchment,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, interim co-director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
Lakin said she’s seen attempts to dilute the Black vote in many places in the South, including Alabama, arguing that redrawn maps in those places don’t reflect the way their demographics have changed over the years.
“When you talk about voting and redistricting, there’s still this question around how race is being used as a tool by the conservative movement in preventing access to voting,” said Derrick Johnson, CEO and president of the NAACP.
Activists underscored the significance of the Voting Rights Act in changing conditions for people of color whose constitutional right to vote had been undercut for decades, but efforts have been underway since then to chip away at aspects of the law.
The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder made a key section of the Voting Rights Act — which required certain states to receive approval from the attorney general before enacting voter law changes — essentially unenforceable.
The states subject to the requirement were those with a history of discriminatory voting practices. Initially set to expire in five years, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was repeatedly extended and gradually expanded.
But the Supreme Court’s five-member conservative majority ruled that the section’s formula for determining which states fell under the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) jurisdiction could not be used because it was not updated to address current conditions and changes that have occurred.
Experts said this ruling helped pave the way for states to pass new restrictive voting laws.
“Our daughter, who is the only grandchild of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, when you think about that, she and her peers are literally sitting with fewer rights than the day that they were born. This generation, they lost rights,” said Arndrea Waters King, the president of the Drum Major Institute and daughter of MLK.
“And the reason that I say that is that she was born in 2008 and [in] 2013, the Voting Rights Act, the crowning achievement of her grandparents’ work as well as all of those who work with them, was basically decimated,” King said.
Sixty years since the March on Washington, with constitutional amendments and initiatives like the Voting Rights Act still in place, the “blunt force tools” of voter oppression seen in the 1950s and 60s are no longer used, Lakin said.
But “more sophisticated tools” are still eroding voting rights in less perceptible ways, targeting mechanisms used “in even slightly disproportionate ways by voters of color,” Lakin said, which “can translate to enormous electoral differences.”
“It’s possible to be much more targeted in the way that you disempower people,” Lakin said, cautioning that many voting restrictions, particularly in local jurisdictions, “are very likely going unnoticed, just as they had prior to the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act.”
Paul Smith, the senior vice president of the Campaign Legal Center, said the “myth of voter fraud” was spread to create a justification for voter ID laws that would specifically target voters of color.
Former President Trump has most prominently relied on allegations of widespread voter fraud to insist that the 2020 election was stolen from him, but conservative candidates and activists have also previously made claims of voter fraud to push in favor of additional voting regulations.
Though voter fraud does not happen more than “a handful of times” per election, “that myth then becomes the first excuse for voter ID laws,” Smith said.
After the Shelby County ruling, states like North Carolina and Florida could approve measures requiring voters to present photo identification to cast their ballots, adding requirements to mail-in ballots and restricting third-party ballot collection.
The disenfranchisement of ex-felons is another issue disproportionately affecting Black Americans with roots in the Jim Crow era, along with measures like literacy tests and poll taxes, Smith said.
Nine states currently have laws in place preventing some people with felony convictions from being able to vote even after they finish their sentence, according to the ACLU. Studies have shown these laws revoke voting rights from Black individuals significantly more than those of other races.
The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice research and advocacy group, reported in 2020 that disenfranchisement dropped almost 15 percent from 2016 because of these efforts to chip away and repeal these laws, but Smith noted that they remain a “substantial problem” for voters of color.
Smith pointed to a 2018 referendum in Florida in which voters approved a measure to restore voting rights after a felon completes their sentence. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill the next year defining the end of someone’s sentence as after they pay any fines they owe.
Smith said many of these ex-felons will not ever have enough money to pay off their fines completely, so this has become a “permanent bar” on their voting rights.
Voting rights advocates argue the country is at a critical flashpoint, urging action to shore up and extend the ideals that the March on Washington pushed for 60 years ago.
“We are in a fight to ensure that individuals are not put in office who run counter to what the future of this country should be because they are trying to move us back to 1950s reality,” said Johnson, of the NAACP.
The March on Washington underscored the need to push forward even after progress has been made, said Kareem Crayton, senior director for Voting and Representation at the Brennan Center for Justice.
“That was really what the march was about: that America had not fulfilled its promise to treat everyone, regardless of race and color, equally in our system, and the fact that it has failed to do it for so long isn’t just resolvable by saying all of a sudden, ‘all right, you guys have the right to vote.’ It means business has to be conducted differently,” he said.
Activists also warn that deepening political polarization is straining the ability to move forward.
As America diversifies, “pressures that are being put on how we define rights, and how essentially policy gets executed, seem often to be seen through this lens of us versus them and not us, as a whole as a country,” Crayton said.
“These are people who are fellow Americans, and we’re here together as part of an experiment that, you know, puts us together — as John Lewis would say — in a house together as a family, and so either we’re going to be a family or not.”
Cheyanne M. Daniels contributed.