The Democratic president had won a strong victory in the November election, and now the nation’s best-known civil-rights leaders were urging him to take strong federal action to override a number of states where conservative lawmakers and sheriffs were impeding Black and brown Americans from voting.
The president agreed with them in private, but he also insisted that he had to go slow, because a voting rights showdown might cost him centrist votes needed for his bold economic agenda to fight poverty, expand health care and overhaul immigration.
But within weeks, something dramatic happened that caused the president to realize that American democracy did in fact require powerful immediate action to expand the vote. The event was Selma’s Bloody Sunday assault on peaceful Black marchers, the president was Lyndon B. Johnson, and the year was 1965.
When ABC interrupted its Sunday night broadcasting (in one of history’s fitting moments, it was “Judgment at Nuremberg,” about undoing the moral stain of Nazi Germany) to show footage of Alabama state troopers beating and tear-gassing marchers led by a young activist named John Lewis, it shocked the conscience of both LBJ and the nation into a swift response.
Just eight days after Selma’s Bloody Sunday, Johnson went up Capitol Hill to address a joint session of Congress on national television and delivered arguably the greatest presidential speech in modern American history.
Never before had U.S. citizens heard the nation’s leader address the need to undo the bitter legacy of slavery, segregation and racism in such stark and moving terms. “Their cause must be our cause too,” Johnson said. “Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” As an exclamation point, LBJ adopted the refrain of 1960s’ civil rights marchers, “And we shall overcome.” After Johnson’s speech and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.-led Selma-to-Montgomery march days later, it took just over 20 weeks for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to become law. It was one of the most successful actions in U.S. history, allowing some 740,000 new voters in the formerly segregated states of the Deep South to register in the first three years, and blazing a path for the election of hundreds of Black and brown candidates in the years after that.
In 2021, a slow-motion Selma is unfolding in statehouses from Harrisburg to Phoenix, with Republican lawmakers—using a falsehood so monstrous that critics are right to call it “the Big Lie,” even with its echoes of Nazi Germany—racing to roll back voting rights at a faster pace than any time since the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th century.
And it’s imperative that President Joe Biden, trying hard to center his own war on the poverty of a pandemic, grasp the full import of this crisis and quickly channel his inner LBJ. If Biden and congressional Democrats don’t laser-focus on voter suppression, American democracy is on the clock.
Like LBJ did on March 15, 1965, it’s time for Biden to address the nation, either in a congressional joint session, or—more practically—in an Oval Office address, to be carried by all of the TV networks in prime time. He needs to dramatically raise public awareness of what is happening right now in America’s statehouses, as GOP legislators engage in an arms race to all but end mail-in voting, cut polling-place days and hours, or impose onerous ID requirements.
He must expose that this is done not to fight fraud, which is virtually nonexistent, but to thwart valid voters, with the goal of helping an increasingly minority party cling to power.
But the ultimate goal of a national address by Biden must be to pressure centrist lawmakers to do what is morally right, and end the filibuster—a vestige of the same white supremacy politics that gave us Selma in 1965—and pass a federal guarantee of voting rights for all Americans.
It’s time for the “it can’t happen here” crowd clinging to the fallacy that American democracy is unsinkable after its steady (but flawed) run of more than two centuries to grasp what has happened in the four months since the 45th and former president began promulgating his lies about massive voter fraud and a falsehood that the election was stolen by Biden.
Even after the shock of the rabble of Donald Trump’s neo-fascist movement storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, now linked to seven deaths and scores of horrific injuries, the bulk of the Republican Party’s base and its leaders have shrugged off any pangs of conscience to double down on the Big Lie.
A recent TV appearance by House GOP leader Steve Scalise in which he failed to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s win was proof, in living color.
But what’s even more shocking is the speed with which Republicans from coast to coast—using their advantage in numerous state legislatures, often aided by another antidemocratic practice, gerrymandering—are racing to use the Big Lie as an excuse to make it harder for their citizens to vote.
Because most normal folks are conditioned not to closely watch their state governments (aided by years of news organizations cutting state-capital coverage to the bone), the 82 million-plus still rejoicing over the removal of the political tumor that was Donald Trump may not see how this cancer of Trump-fried authoritarianism is metastasizing in the body politic.
This winter, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which closely monitors voting rights in America, is tracking some 253 proposals in some 44 state legislatures that would make it harder to vote. That’s a dramatic increase over similar legislation at this time in 2020, or any other recent year.
And in many cases, the sponsors of these bills are citing outrage from voters who believe the Big Lie after watching Trump or other Republicans promoting it on social media or in a right-wing media bubble of Fox News or even more extreme news outlets.
For example: In Georgia, where arguably the most aggressive efforts in the nation to increase Black and brown voter turnout is credited for surprising wins there by Biden and two new Democratic U.S. senators, the Republican-dominated state legislature is striking back with a series of restrictive measures, including an end to Sunday early voting which will kill the “souls to the polls” drives that boosted African American balloting in the formerly segregated Southern state.
In Arizona, another state that has turned increasingly Democratic in recent federal elections, lawmakers are pushing a variety of restrictions that could end using the U.S. mail for absentee ballots or allow for purging of a permanent list of early voters. In addition, one measure in Arizona would allow state lawmakers to override the presidential popular vote and appoint electors, the feared endgame in the long-running GOP assault on democracy.
In Pennsylvania, the same GOP lawmakers who OK’ed “no excuses” voting-by-mail for 2020 because of the pandemic and in a deal with Democrats to also halt straight-ticket voting are now racing to end this practice after the commonwealth saw an all-time record for voter participation while Biden narrowly won its 20 electoral votes.
The lay of the land looks remarkably similar to 1965. Again, the best and quickest way to ensure fundamental voting rights for all Americans—the great promise of the 14th and 15th Amendments enacted after the Civil War—is action on the federal level. And like the situation at the time of the Selma marches, those bills are in the hopper and awaiting action in Congress.
There are two critical bills. The first is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the Selma hero who spent the second half of his life as a U.S. representative from Georgia until his death in 2020.
It’s a direct response to the 2013 ruling by the Roberts Supreme Court that essentially gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had barred states (like Georgia) with a history of discrimination from restricting voting without an OK—called “pre-clearance”—from the U.S. Justice Department. The bill named for Lewis would restore that provision and also likely expand the number of covered jurisdictions. That’s critical but also not quite enough for this dangerous new era.
That’s where the second measure, known as the For the People Act, or HR 1, comes into play. The bill is a sweeping reform package that would make it much easier to register, including automatic registration when applying for a driving license. It would mandate same-day registration and allow voting by the formerly incarcerated in all federal elections. It would also tackle broader threats to democracy such as gerrymandering or so-called “dark money” donations.
In 1965, the moral fervor for voting rights after Selma proved bipartisan. Not so in 2021. While Democrats almost unanimously support both bills, Republicans are rock-solid, or close to it, in opposing them.
That’s because the GOP is no longer a democratic political party but increasingly a social movement determined to wield power through strongman tactics. With a one-vote (that of Vice President Kamala Harris) margin in the Senate, these two democracy-saving bills will only become law in such a climate by ending the filibuster that allows the Republican minority to block legislation.
Today, that wouldn’t happen, because of the timidity of a couple of the most centrist Democrats who seem willing to stake their personal political ambitions on avoiding tough votes. The only way this status quo changes is if Biden—enjoying the popularity of a new president, with the bully pulpit and the moral authority of the White House behind him—uses those unrivaled powers to win over the reluctant.
There’s more than one way to do that—LBJ was a master of funding new dams or interstates in all the right districts—but for Biden in the 21st century, the best route is to appeal to the American majority and to make ending voter suppression the moral equivalent of war.
It won’t be easy—historians would note that Johnson had a much larger majority in Congress to work with—but there’s little alternative for Biden. If Republicans win in the 2022 midterms not by the power of their ideas but by picking who gets to cast a vote, the rest of the Biden/Democratic agenda will be dead, and that won’t be the worst of it for the American Experiment.
Either will shall overcome voter suppression in the 2020s, or true democracy will perish on U.S. soil.