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Forty-Seven Years Ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson Called for Voting Rights | The Nation

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Voting Rights Watch

Voting Rights Watch

In-depth coverage of voter suppression efforts nationwide, in partnership with Colorlines.com.

Forty-Seven Years Ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson Called for Voting Rights

On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson called on Congress to pass legislation allowing African Americans to vote and to “extend the rights of citizenship to every citizen of this land.” In making this declaration, President Johnson made the case that the fight for voting rights was not just for black people. “Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”

Read this archived New York Times article for more choice quotes from President Johnson on voting rights, including whether this issue is a constitutional, moral, or states’ rights issue. To LBJ, it was none of the above: “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote.”

In the speech, President Johnson refused to single out the South, where voting discrimination had turned violent as seen across TVs in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Instead, the president said voting discrimination was “an American problem. … In Buffalo as well as Birmingham, in Philadelphia as well as Selma.”

Fast forward forty-seven years ago today to Philadelphia as well as Selma. Pennsylvania’s Republican legislators passed a restrictive photo voter ID bill that was signed into law this week with glee by Republican Governor Tom Corbett, as the bill’s sponsor Representative Daryl Metcalfe—one of Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Dirty Dozen” anti-immigrant state legislators—looked over his shoulder.

In Alabama, the state passed an immigration bill so strife with civil and human rights violations that Reverend Al Sharpton brought activists back to Selma to re-enact the 1965 march that precipitated President Johnson to demand voting rights legislation. Alabama also passed a voter ID bill, though not as restrictive as Pennsylvania’s, but it can’t be enforced until the federal government reviews it, per the Voting Rights Act.

These days Pennsylvania is looking a lot like the Alabama of 1965. The same NAACP that led court challenges and won court victories for voting rights, Rep. Metcalfe calls “laughable.” He told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that mandating specific photo identification to vote can’t be a civil rights issue because you need ID to ride a plane.

This argument only deserves a response because it is a primary talking point for every Republican who defends voter ID laws. One day I’ll write a blog that simply lists all of the things that the photo voter ID mandate is compared to (buying Sudafed, going to a Rated R movie, etc.). As for the plane comparison, though, it’s wrong.

As The Advancement Project’s co-director Judith Browne Dianis recently pointed out, TSA will allow you to board a plane if you happen to forget or don’t have photo ID on you. From TSA’s own website:

 

We understand passengers occasionally arrive at the airport without an ID, due to lost items or inadvertently leaving them at home. Not having an ID, does not necessarily mean a passenger won’t be allowed to fly. If passengers are willing to provide additional information, we have other means of substantiating someone’s identity, like using publicly available databases.

 

In recent weeks, both DOJ and courts have blocked photo voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas on state constitutional and Voting Rights Act grounds respectively. In Pennsylvania, litigation is inevitable. In Tennessee, there is serious movement in the legislature to repeal the photo voter ID law passed last year.

States like Texas and South Carolina have blamed the federal government for imposing on their state’s sovereignty, but President Johnson, emboldened by the heroic efforts of African Americans who marched, bled and died for voting rights, had an answer for that:

“Open your polling places to all your people. … We cannot—we must not—refuse to protect the right of Americans to vote in any election in which they may desire to participate.”

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