The Long and Winding Road Toward Equality

The GOP rejection of the For The People Act follows a painful history of denying the voting rights of Americans

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On June 22, Vice President Kamala Harris talked to the media after presiding over the failed vote to open debate on the For the People Act. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Honestly, I’m still steaming over the Republicans’ unanimous refusal to even allow debate on the For the People Act. It’s not that I was surprised by their use of the filibuster to deny the Democratic-led legislation, but rather how it shamefully underscores their rejection of a democracy that values the right to vote and echoes America’s long and painful history treating equality as only an ideal.

Here’s how the the Brennan Center for Justice summarizes the federal legislation: “Its most important reforms would combat overt discrimination, affirmatively expand opportunities to vote for all eligible Americans, outlaw discriminatory gerrymandering, and blunt the political effects of wealth inequality.”

Of course, Mitch “power by any means necessary” McConnell called the bill a “power grab,” a “transparently partisan plan to tilt every election in their favor.” But his voice is only this powerful, at this time of a 50-50 Senate and a Democratic VP who can decide votes, because there are Democrats who refuse to end the filibuster and the need for 60 votes.

After that vote to block debate, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said that “voter suppression has become part of the official platform of the Republican Party.” And he foreshadowed the coming fight for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act: “The fight to protect voting rights is not over, by no means. In the fight for voting rights, this vote was the starting gun, not the finish line.”

Schumer is right. This is far from over. Millions of Americans cannot sit idly by without a federal response to the growing list of GOP-led states enacting voter suppression laws.

As the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, put it after the Senate vote: “This is not just a Black thing. This is a fear of the American people, a fear of Black and white and Brown and Asian and Native people coming together and pushing this nation forward.”

This is an old story, of tragedy and sacrifice and meaningful, albeit incremental progress. As much as this is a story of history—of slavery and white supremacy and what it means to be human and a citizen—it’s also a story of the continuing battles to appeal to our better angels and push back against the fear and hatred that still motivates too many elected officials and voters.

Let’s look back for a moment at a few of those critical turning points that illuminate the struggles still underway:

On January 26, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation:

“…all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

Note that this proclamation would not take effect until January 1, 1863—and that it only applied to enslaved people in the Confederacy, not to those in border states that were still loyal to the Union. Congress had already passed in July 1862 the Confiscation Act, which declared that enslaved people seized from Confederate supporters would be forever free.

On June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, their task was to ensure that all enslaved people would be freed—some two-and-a-half years after Lincoln’s proclamation and two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia. U.S. General Gordon Granger read General Orders No. 3: “The People of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Only this year has that celebratory day known as Juneteenth become a national holiday.

In 1857, the US Supreme Court ruled (in the case of Scott v. Sanford, better known as the Dred Scott decision) that African Americans were not US citizens, even if they were free. That was effectively overturned in 1868 by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed that everyone born or naturalized in the US would be a US citizen, and that federal citizenship was primary; this prevented states from denying freed slaves state citizenship and thus federal citizenship.

And the 15th Amendment established that “the right of citizens of the United States shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” (Of course, it took until 1919 and the dedicated work of suffragists before women obtained the right to vote.) Section 2 of this amendment stated that “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Soon after the 1870 ratification of the 15th Amendment during Reconstruction—and particularly after over half a million Black men joined the voting rolls—Southern states pursued new strategies to deny them of their voting rights, including poll taxes, literacy tests and all-white primaries, as well as fraud, violence and other intimidation.

Sound familiar? Now a century and a half after the move to expand citizenship, secure the right to vote for African Americans and seek greater equality—and only months after a white supremacist-fueled insurrection at our nation’s Capitol intended to keep in power a white supremacist president and deny a democratically elected president—17 states have passed 28 laws to restrict access to voting, with more to come.

While we look ahead to 2022 and a potential shift in majority power without the passage of federal legislation, successful lawsuits by the Department of Justice in response to new state-level voter suppression laws, and massive voter turnout, let’s also recall what Section 3 of the 14th Amendment stated in the wake of the Civil War and confederate insurrection against the United States of America:

“No Person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.”

We look to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US Congress and President Biden to do their part to uphold the Constitution of the United States in the matter of January 6, 2021. Americans have battled for far too long to create an inclusive society and honest elections to allow domestic terrorists and their fellow insurrectionists to define our future.

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