For the past couple of weeks, America has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act with events all around the country.
On Aug. 13, many state-wide and local organizations joined the commemoration with an event on the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento. Legislative Black Caucus members partnered with the Sacramento branch of the NAACP and Urban league, civil rights groups, other elected officials from around the state, and Californians from all walks of life to mark the historic legislation many regard as the most important achievement of the 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 Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), who was an official host of the event that about 100 people attended. “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.”
For many voting rights advocates, California’s decision last week to restore voting rights to tens of thousands of felons serving sentences under community supervision makes marking the golden jubilee of the historic legislation even more special. California’s new policy comes at a time when there is growing support across the country among liberals, conservatives and moderates for extending voting rights to ex-felons.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla made the announcement last week, after the state settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and a number of 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; it is part of a process of becoming vested and having a stake in the community.”
All across the state there were Voting Rights celebrations honoring the efforts of civil rights activists half a century ago 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, was the keynote speaker. Organizers held the event titled, “The 1965 Voting Rights Act 50th Anniversary Tribute Call-To-Action Mass Meeting” at Holman United Methodist Church.
Preacely, who was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, urged Blacks 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,” she said. “This is the time; this is the place to work for equal rights.”
The landmark legislation outlawed the discriminatory voting practices taking place in the Deep South, after the Civil War. The act was designed to enforce the voting rights cemented by the U.S. Constitution, but voting advocates say more work needs to be done after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the Shelby v. Holder case.
The case’s verdict nullified the Section 5 protections in the act. The section required certain states and jurisdictions to get approval in advance from the Department of Justice when electoral changes were made; this included such decisions as changing voting requirements.
Empowered by the Supreme Court’s ruling, over the last two years, several states have enacted laws requiring certain types of identification to vote, cut back on early voting days and limited who can register voters.
Over a dozen speakers took to the pulpit at the historic Black church in the West Adams district of Los Angeles and spoke of the importance of making sure everyone, particularly African Americans, have a right to step into the ballot box.
The speakers at Holman 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 Pastor William D. Smart Jr.; Holman Pastor Kelvin Sauls; CORE California Chair Adrian Dove; and Bend the Arc National Chair Stephen Rohde.
Other speakers included Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin, Los Angeles Urban League President and CEO Nolan Rollins and SCLC-Southern California Board Chairman Alice Golf.
The event was organized by a number of voting and civil rights groups and hosted by award-winning actor and singer Keith David. SCLC Freedom Singers and the Own Your Voice/Own Your Vote Ensemble performed during the two-hour tribute.
Rep. Bass, the Democrat whose district is in the greater Los Angeles area, called the Supreme Court’s judgement two years ago a mistake. She is supporting the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015. The bill aims to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with a key provision that would limit the power states have to amend federal voting laws. This bill is making its way through the United States House of Representatives.
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