Voter’s Rights: Over fifty years later we are still fighting

By Whitney Gresham

Fifty-five years ago this March, Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old Detroit civil rights activist and mother of five, heeded a call from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma, Ala., and help African Americans fight for the right to vote. She was inspired to make the trip following the nationwide broadcast of the brutal assault upon civil rights protestors as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their trek to the state capitol of Montgomery, Ala., to demand free and unfettered access to the ballot.     

Liuzzo participated in the subsequent successful Selma to Montgomery marches and helped with driving fellow activists to the Montgomery airport. However, during one trip to the airport, a car loaded with Ku Klux Klansman drove her and her passenger off the road and shot her twice in the head, killing her. 

Liuzzo’s funeral was held at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Detroit and she is buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield. Her violent death and that of other Americans fighting for the right to vote throughout the South were a major catalyst for the U.S. Congress passing, and President Lyndon Johnson signing, the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.   

Dr. King told her children, “One day you’ll understand your mom was a hero.” 

Now, more than 50 years after her cold-blooded murder, African Americans and other minorities’ right to vote is under withering assault again. But this time it is coming from right-wing politicians and judges led by the Republican Party – with Michigan Republicans at the head of the pack, with even their black U.S. Senate candidate John James refusing to speak out in favor of strong voting rights.  

Last month the House of Representatives passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) — which restores the protections of the hardearned Voting Rights Act of 1965. The passage was paid in part by the blood of Detroit’s own Viola Liuzzo. The law had been badly weakened by the Republican-controlled U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. 

While every Democratic member of the House unanimously supported the bill, the entire Republican House caucus except one Pennsylvania representative opposed it. Including every single Republican member of the House from Michigan. And as to be expected, not only has the Republican-controlled Senate refused to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, President Trump has threatened to immediately veto the VRAA if it was to pass the Senate.  

With the November 2020 presidential election only 10 months away, and considered by many to be the most consequential presidential election in our modern history, the bill lingers in the Senate with no prospect of passage because the Republicans hold a 53 to 47 advantage. And not one Republican senator has expressed even the remotest interest in supporting this critical civil rights bill. Including the only black Republican senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina. 

Making matters worse for African Americans, Trump’s re-election campaign has publicly announced its intent to engage in massive and aggressive voter suppression efforts during the 2020 presidential election to stop Americans from voting for whom they don’t like. That means black folks. 

According to a report in Nation Magazine last month, as well as other mainstream media outlets including the Washington Post, top Trump campaign adviser and senior counsel Justin Clark was recorded telling the Republican National Lawyer’s Association that, “Traditionally, it’s always been Republicans suppressing votes in places” in battleground states such as Wisconsin. 

He added the Trump re-election campaign will be much more aggressive in 2020 in engaging in efforts to suppress the votes of Americans who they fear might not support Trump. “Let’s start playing offense a little bit. That’s what you’re going to see in 2020. It’s going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program,” Clark said. 

Those remarks were from an audiotape of the event obtained by the group One Wisconsin Now and shared with the Associated Press.  

Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence of Southfield (D-MI) co-sponsored the VRAA or HR 4 as she refers to it, and said if the bill was passed by the Senate it would help mitigate many of these voter suppression schemes. It was crafted to rectify the damage done to minority voting rights in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s only black member, Clarence Thomas, deliberately emasculated the bill by declaring its most effective tool, the Section 5 Preclearance section, unconstitutional.          

That led to a massive and largely successful nationwide effort by Republicans and other right-wing politicians in states covered by the VRA to engage in flagrant acts of voter suppression to diminish the electoral impact of African Americans, Latinos, Asians and college students, Lawrence noted. 

“Under HR 4 these suppressive laws are not allowed,” she said. “HR 4 will prohibit them. HR 4 will restore protections of the Voting Rights Act by updating the preclearance formula. It allows the Attorney General to request federal observers to be present anywhere in the country where there is a serious threat of suppression.” 

Lawrence also said it creates an automatic voter registration system when you turn 18 and protects voting by mail and early voting while prohibiting the arbitrary purging of voters like in Ohio and Georgia, along with forbidding partisan gerrymandering. 

The Chronicle reached out to the Michigan State Republican Party to get its official position on the VRAA and for answers why every Michigan Republican House member opposed this civil rights bill. However, Tony Zammit, communications director for the organization, said they did not have an official position on the bill.  

The Chronicle also reached out repeatedly to the campaign of John James, the conservative African American Michigan Republican Party challenger to incumbent Democrat Gary Peters for his seat in the U.S. Senate. The James Senate campaign website has no mention of the VRAA, civil rights, or any legislative agenda. It did not respond to a request for information regarding his position on the VRAA if elected to the Senate or the Trump re-election campaign declaration to engage in aggressive voter suppression efforts.  

James Communications Director Abby Walls did not respond to calls for comments from the Chronicle by its deadline. However, during an interview with the Chronicle in the fall of 2018, when James was challenging Michigan’s senior U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow for her seat in the Senate, he claimed he did not know much about the Voting Rights Act. In fact, James – who had stated he supported President Trump “2000 percent” – would not express support for the legislation even after it was explained it was considered one of the crown jewels of the civil rights movement and a vital tool needed to combat widespread voter suppression. 

He further would not condemn voter suppression efforts by the Republican Party. 

Both Michigan U.S. Senators, Stabenow (D-MI) and Peters (D-MI), strongly support passage of the bill and are also co-sponsors of the Senate version. In a statement to the Chronicle Sen. Peters acknowledged as much. 

“I co-sponsored the Senate companion of the Voting Rights Advancement Act because we should make it easier for Americans to vote – not harder,” he said. “The right to vote is the core of our democracy and I’m very concerned by efforts across the country to restrict voters access.”  

“I was very encouraged when Michigan voters spoke loud and clear in 2018 by voting to expand access at the ballot box. We must remain constantly vigilant against any attempts to restrict the right to vote, and this legislation would restore critical protections to support the bedrock of our democratic institutions. I am disappointed that Majority Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans have refused to consider this legislation, and I will continue pushing for a vote on this bill,” Peters said. 

Mark Brewer, a Michigan civil rights attorney and election law expert, said the Voting Rights Act was long considered among the most vital of the major civil rights victories of the 1960s. But right-wing politicians and activists going back 40 years to Ronald Reagan had been aching to destroy the legislation which enabled millions of African Americans to gain access to the franchise and a degree of political representation in Congress and on a statewide and municipal level not seen since Reconstruction. 

Brewer, the former Chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said unified Republican opposition to minority voting rights is a relatively new phenomenon with near-unanimous party support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act Extension bill as recently as 2006. 

That bill passed the Senate by a vote of 98 to 0 and the House by 390 to 33. When the VRAA passed in December 2019, it was by a largely party-line vote of 228 to 187, with only one Republican House member, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, supporting the civil rights law.   

The Michigan Republicans opposition to the VRAA is a disgrace. That its black Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, John James, joins them in this act of gross disrespect for the sacrifices of Americans who fought to bring democracy to this country makes a mockery of not only all that Liuzzo and Dr. King fought and died for, but anything he says about being a “patriot” or “fighting for this country.” And it certainly calls into doubt his claim to know how to represent the interests of black Detroiters better than a white person – as he told the Chronicle when running against Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018.  

“The entire Republican Party part is in such enthrall to Trump,” Brewer said. “This is among many other issues you see over and over again. You see the Republican Party abandoning its traditional support of civil rights … Trump has made them a party formally opposed to voting rights.” 

“When James ran last time, he said he was 2000 percent in support of Trump and he is inlock step with Trump – including on this issue,” he said. 

By Whitney Gresham 

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