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To honor the legacy of Bloody Sunday, we must restore the Voting Rights Act

Today marks 59 years since brave civil rights foot soldiers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, as they marched for their fundamental right to vote. They were met with state troopers wielding billy clubs and beaten mercilessly as the world watched.

They were not deterred. Their efforts led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which would help protect the right to vote for communities of color for decades. Their bravery – and subsequent victory – exemplify what the late Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the march as a young man, reminded us: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part.”

Those words still ring true today, a decade into a new era of voting laws designed to suppress the vote. The 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder opened the floodgates for new anti-voting laws, especially those in the Deep South, by gutting a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. As a result, today Black voters have than in 1965 after passage of the Voting Rights Act.

And, , the turnout gap between voters of color and white voters has grown in the decade since the Shelby decision, especially in states that needed federal approval for voting law changes under the act.

The fallout extends well beyond the ballot box. Consider what we’ve witnessed with voting rights protections gutted:

  • A long-standing constitutional right – autonomy over our bodies – overturned.
  • A war targeting educators and the accurate teaching of history, particularly our nation’s racial history.
  • Chronic underfunding of safety net programs amid the climbing cost of living.
  • Empty excuses from lawmakers standing idle as guns in our schools and streets claim lives with no end in sight.

The list goes on.

The good news is we can turn the tide. Much like the Civil Rights Movement in 1965, we must create a groundswell of support that’s rooted in the South but spreads nationwide. We must demand change from lawmakers in Washington and hold them accountable with our vote. We must speak to family and friends, so they vote in support of our shared values. And we must vote in November despite hurdles to the ballot box.

Democracy depends on it.

Once we have responsive leaders in office, we must urge them to prioritize legislation protecting the right to vote. Congress must pass legislation that restores and strengthens the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while modernizing the law so it protects voters for the next 50 years. With passage of such a bill, voters of color and others will once again enjoy the full protections of one of the most successful civil rights laws in history.

Additionally, Congress must pass legislation that would set national minimum standards for election administration, ensuring that commonsense modernizations like accessible voter registration, early voting and voting by mail without an excuse are available to voters in all 50 states. Today, voters in some states find it quite easy to vote, while those in other states must clear unnecessary hoops and hurdles to vote.

While the situation appears bleak, Lewis’ words must guide us. When each generation does its part to perfect our democracy, there is always hope. Now is the time to mobilize, vote and demand Congress prioritize voting rights.

Laura Williamson is the senior policy advisor for voting rights and civic engagement at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Illustration at top by the