In 1963, just as Martin Luther King Jr. and the other “Big Six” civil rights leaders were in the final stages of planning the March on Washington, my mother, Sybil Haydel Morial, incorporated the Louisiana League of Good Government, a nonprofit created to help African Americans overcome deterrents to voting such as literacy tests.
She’d been banned from joining the Louisiana branch of the League of Women Voters because of her race. “That shut door was an epiphany for me,” she wrote in her memoir, “Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowerment.” Rather than be deterred, she devoted herself to preparing Black New Orleanians for Louisiana’s nearly-impossible literacy test.
Registrars – who were all white – had wide latitude in determining who passed or failed such tests, and they used their authority to fail most Black applicants, thereby keeping them from voting. Ironically, one of the tests required applicants to read the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, intended to “establish Justice” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty,” in the words of the Founding Fathers who authored them nearly two centuries earlier.
But in Louisiana, in 1963, justice and liberty still were reserved mostly for white people.
On the very day that civil rights activist Medgar Evers was gunned down in his own driveway in Jackson, Mississippi, in June of 1963, my mother picked up the phone to hear, “Morial is going to get what that [racial slur] in Mississippi got.” We had been receiving threatening calls ever since my father, Ernest “Dutch” Morial,” had assumed the presidency of the NAACP in New Orleans (and later the first Black mayor of the city). But after that threatening phone call, my parents took extra precautions: My father would blast his car horn when he pulled up to the house each night, and my mother would flash the carport light several times, all to scare off would-be assassins.
The voting rights struggle of my parents’ generation was a steep uphill climb, but as the years went by, they saw barrier after barrier fall, from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision (where the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional) to the Civil Rights Act to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Now, 60 years after the March on Washington, we are seeing many of those same barriers – and new ones – rise up once again.
The March on Washington on Its 50th Anniversary
My parents fought Jim Crow, who used bogus literacy tests and threats of violence to keep Black Americans from the voting booth.
By the time I assumed leadership of the National Urban League in 2003, our adversary was James Crow, Esq., who used racial gerrymandering to dilute the political voices of Black Americans.
Today, we are battling Jimmy Crow, who wants to disregard the results of elections entirely.
The current assault on voting rights is a direct response to the rising influence of the Black vote since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As we noted in last year’s State of Black America report, which was subtitled “Under Siege: The Plot to Destroy Democracy,” an anti-democracy wave began to rise after record-high Black voting rates in 2008 and crested with the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder to gut the Voting Rights Act. Now, that wave has broken against “The Big Lie,” the relentless campaign to invalidate the free, fair and validated results of the 2020 election. Those who marched in 1963 were fighting for their right to participate in democracy. Those who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, were fighting to obliterate democracy.
So far, in 2023 alone, state lawmakers have introduced at least 323 bills to restrict the vote in 45 states. At least 13 of these bills, in 11 states, have passed into law. Even more alarming is the rise of election interference legislation, which would allow partisan interference in the election process. At least 78 bills have been introduced this year in 20 states that would make it easier to, for example, criminally prosecute election officials for simply doing their jobs, set up bogus partisan “review” procedures, or prohibit the use of machines to count ballots for any election. At least four states already have passed such laws.
The campaign to exclude Black Americans from the democratic process is gradually being supplanted with a campaign to eliminate the democratic process altogether.
Earlier this summer, with its decision in Moore v. Harper, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the “independent state legislature theory” that extremists have pushed in order to give state legislatures free rein to gerrymander electoral maps and suppress voters of color – and to give cover to their sinister efforts to overturn elections.
Still, the court’s decision is unlikely to deter these extremists, who are intent on returning a man to the White House who faces numerous indictments for attempting to invalidate the results of the 2020 election. If those forces succeed, the two-century moral arc that has bent slowly, if unevenly, toward universal suffrage could come to an end.