Dear Senators Manchin and Sinema,
Republican state legislators in 48 states have passed or proposed 389 restrictive voting laws (Brennan Center of Justice, May 2021) designed to prevent tens of millions of people of color from casting ballots in future state and national elections. Here’s a rhetorical question for each of you:
- Manchin, would you hesitate to end the Senate filibuster if Republicans in West Virginia and 47 other states had passed or proposed 389 restrictive voting laws that would deny millions of white men their right to vote?
- Sinema, would you have reason to ponder what to do about the Senate filibuster if Republicans in Arizona and 47 other states passed or proposed 389 restrictive voting laws designed to slash dramatically the number of white women allowed to cast ballots?
By now, you must sense, indeed, you must know that if white tribalism is at the core of your reluctance, democracy won’t survive. Painful memories of the way it was during the ‘separate but equal’ era for people of color, linger still in the soul of black America. Generation after generation of black folks who lived under the Jim Crow laws of the South were barred from participating in the election of our nation’s leaders at every level. One hundred years after the Civil War, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which finally opened voting booths to blacks. Ironically, Lyndon Johnson, a hardcore racist from Texas and former Senate majority leader, worked tirelessly to convince Congress to support the bill in both the Senate (77-19) and the House (328-74). Most congress members did. John F. Kennedy picked Johnson as his running mate in the 1960 presidential elections and Johnson assumed the presidency after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
In his book series, The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Caro, says that Sen. Johnson adamantly opposed civil rights legislation for 20 years (1937-57) and later became a major civil rights advocate. Caro wrote: “He always had this true, deep compassion to help poor people and particularly poor people of color, but even stronger than the compassion was his ambition. When the two aligned, when compassion and ambition finally are pointing in the same direction … Johnson becomes a force for racial justice, unequalled certainly since (Abraham) Lincoln.”
Attacks on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 began in 2013 when the Supreme Court gutted Section 5, a key part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. That section required states with a history of discriminatory voting practices to discuss any proposed changes in election rules and procedures with the Department of Justice (DOJ). The country’s highest Court, in a 5-4 ruling, voided that requirement. Hence, Republican legislators, in southern states and many others – are running amok in their effort to shrink the country’s list of non-white voters as quickly as possible. Moreover, a recent Supreme Court (6-3) decision in a Phoenix case is expected to make it easier for states to create voting restrictions that will withstand scrutiny.
Republican Supreme Court members aren’t interested in protecting nonwhite citizens right to vote. That’s clear. Sadly, it is clear, too, that Clarence Thomas, the Court’s lone black member, is at ease with his alliance with MAGA world and his date with historical infamy.
Senators, the Insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, I hope, has helped us understand that our country, our way of life, is under attack not by enemies from afar, but by forces from within. The same elements that launched the Civil War – States rights and racism – once again are afoot. A large segment of U.S. society would rather see our country under authoritarian rule than continue as a democracy. It wants us to abandon our pursuit of excellence, fairness, integrity, qualities that have helped us become a major player on the world stage. So many of the descendants of slaves like me, endured the South’s ‘Separate but Equal’ lifestyle believing that what our parents, our teachers hoped and prayed for – equality – soon would come.
As a teenager, I was dismayed knowing that colleges and universities in the South maintained ‘No Negroes allowed’ barriers at Virginia, Duke, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, et al, even if black teens were gifted intellectually. Which meant, of course that students of color, who had the potential to build a better mousetrap or find a cure for cancer, wouldn’t be allowed to do it at those institutions. Didn’t make sense then, doesn’t now. Logic, goodness or common sense can’t survive in those with hearts stained by racism.
Eric Hoffer, the late author and social philosopher, provides, I believe, plausible insight into the racist mind.
He says, “The most effective way to silence our guilty conscience is to convince ourselves and others that those we have sinned against are indeed depraved creatures, deserving every punishment, even extermination. We cannot pity those we have wronged, nor can we be indifferent toward them. We must hate or persecute them or else leave the door open to self-contempt.”
Senators, the late John Lewis, former Congressman and civil rights icon, risked his life repeatedly, contributing to the struggle for the right to vote and live with dignity for all people. Honor him by joining those who vow to repeal the Senate filibuster and pass bills to strengthen our democracy.