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Column: King's deferred ‘Dream' of democracy

By Janai S. Nelson

In the midst of current retrenchments on voting rights, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech provides an important opportunity to consider whether his "dream" has been realized. Or, is it now, in the words of the famous poet Langston Hughes, a "dream deferred."

In that speech and many others, King lays out a powerful vision of democracy "deeply rooted in the American dream . . . ‘that all are created equal.'" King also articulated a three-pronged vision for American democracy — inclusive, substantive and transformative — throughout his struggle for civil rights.

The promise held in King's dream is to wake up one day to its reality — not to slumber while discrimination marches on. The immediate step we can take is to reverse the continuing assault on voting rights and expand participation in our democracy. Rehabilitating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, following the Supreme Court's recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down one of the law's most important provisions, should be at the top of this agenda.

In June the Supreme Court dealt a death blow to the act's requirement that the federal government pre-approve all election changes in specific districts or states with a history of racial discrimination in voting. No longer bound by this federal oversight, several jurisdictions with substantial records of discrimination rapidly began enacting laws that will undermine minority voters' ability to vote.

King envisioned that all Americans, including racial minorities, would not only have unfettered access to vote, but, more important, have an urgent reason to go to the polls. "We cannot be satisfied," King said, "as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote."

This view of both an inclusive and substantive democracy calls for access beyond the mere act of casting a ballot. It envisions informing the content of the ballot and demands access to the halls of power in government. The Voting Rights Act has served both these goals by eliminating direct barriers to the franchise and providing for more equitable redistricting and fairer election systems.

King knew the transformative power of democracy. In his 1957 speech "Give Us the Ballot — We Will Transform the South," he paints a picture of the stronger, better and more democratic America that would emerge if diverse voices were included in the electorate and permitted to influence legislation and office-holders. He lamented that democracy in the South had stagnated, and insisted that the United States lagged behind European countries in social legislation because of the exclusion of African-Americans.

King envisioned the black vote as a means of advancing democracy in the South. "A new era would open to all Americans," he said, that would "enlarge democracy for all people, in both the political and social sense."

The March on Washington and King's speech were clarion calls that marked an era of dramatic civil rights legislation, altering the nation's political and social fabric. In the half-century since, we have passed innumerable milestones in the fight for racial equality in nearly every aspect of American society. The United States has witnessed greater inclusion, improved substance and notable transformation both within and as a result of its democracy.

The year after King's speech, President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to pressure Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He followed this with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This bill, in particular, was born out of profound violence and deep-seated resistance, which King described as a "century of terror and evasion."

Not surprisingly, the Voting Rights Act has been amended numerous times over decades to account for the complexity of discriminatory tactics. It now protects not only against intentional discrimination, but also voting laws that result in the denial or curtailment of the right to vote on account of race. It also now includes provisions to protect Latinos and other language minorities — a crucial detail given the increasing diversity of our electorate.

The Voting Rights Act has remained a beacon of racial progress in a stormy sea of retrenchment. Several Supreme Court cases, however, have narrowed the legal advances that the civil rights movement had ushered in. A decade after the act was passed, for example, Washington v. Davis (1976) ruled that even compelling evidence of a disproportionate racial impact is not sufficient to prove a race discrimination claim. Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1977) ended the power of affirmative action to remedy past discrimination and set in motion the current evisceration of affirmative action policies. Yet the Voting Rights Act remained remarkably resilient.

Beginning in the late the 1990s, however, threats to the act went from rumored to real, culminating in the Shelby County decision. In striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which provided a formula for deciding which jurisdictions with histories of virulent voting discrimination required federal oversight of any changes in their election law, the Supreme Court effectively ended automatic federal government pre-clearance in voting.

Indeed, King's view of disenfranchisement as a burden on democracy is lost on today's Supreme Court as well as for lawmakers in far too many states. Already this year, 31 states introduced 80 restrictive voting laws. By contrast, there have been only ten actual cases nationwide of impersonation fraud — which these new laws claim to prevent — among the more than 120 million voters. Yet, this phantom bogeyman of voter fraud is the standard justification for these measures that mean a disproportionate number of minority, young, elderly and poor cannot vote.

Many of these measures originated in the South, with Texas, North Carolina and Florida leading the charge. Most pernicious are laws that require limited forms of voter identification, so older voters without a driver's license or students with only a college identification card cannot go to the polls. But other tactics are also used, such as reducing early voting periods, which leads to overcrowding at the polls, and permitting voter roll purges, which has already resulted in the removal of legitimate registered voters.

These voting restrictions threaten the inclusion achieved through the Voting Rights Act — which is still far short of what could be achieved with automatic voter registration for all eligible citizens. Another key reform would be to abolish felon disenfranchisement, which has barred a generation of young African-Americans convicted under harsh drug laws that our attorney general recently called into question.

Despite these obstacles, we've made tremendous progress as a nation since the March on Washington. The first black family's residence in the White House for two terms and the electoral gains that enabled President Barack Obama's historic wins are a testament to America's evolution as a society.

Sitting in the Oval Office, however, was never the end goal. King's tripartite dream of a democracy that is inclusive, substantive and transformative will not be fully realized until race and class have no correlation with access to the ballot — and until those two burdens on equality can be meaningfully addressed through the political process.

Commemorating King's speech and the March on Washington is a crucial step in bringing national attention to the aspects of King's dream that remain deferred. To quote the dreamer himself: "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."

We have lived with this charge for 50 years. It is now time to make King's deferred dream a reality and prevent the impending nightmare that this new wave of voting restrictions may well produce.

(The views expressed are author's own.) (Janai S. Nelson is author of the article, "The Causal Context of Disparate Vote Denial" on the Voting Rights Act.)

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