I was born a second-class citizen. I wish that was hyperbole, but it isn’t. People who were born into slavery at the tail end of the Civil War were still alive when I took my first breath, though their testimonies weren’t included in history books mass-produced for America’s schoolchildren.
Because I was a child, I didn’t know how circumscribed my existence was by law and tradition. I learned my ABCs shortly before the U.S. Senate began debating the merits of HR 7152, a piece of landmark civil rights legislation that emerged from the House of Representatives.
The 1964 bill debated in the U.S. Senate was designed to end racial discrimination and segregation in most spheres of American public life. Then, as now, a two-thirds vote was needed to cut off the filibuster in the Senate that had dragged on for months. The question of whether people who looked like me were entitled to be first-class citizens, including the right to vote, was the most debated question in American politics.
For decades, Southern Democrats, much like their spiritual descendants in the GOP today, successfully wielded the filibuster to stymie progressive legislation. The big difference is that, in those days, members of the Senate were unapologetic about using the filibuster to preserve discrimination.
Today, the filibuster is defended in the name of “good order” and protecting “the rights of the minority party.” The Democratic senators in a position to dispel the noxious cloud of procedural legalese and end the veto exerted by a Jim Crow relic over our national politics lack both the moral imagination and a broader view of history required to meet the moment.
I don’t remember what I was doing on June 10, 1964, when 27 Republicans and 44 Democrats worked together to finally end the filibuster that had bogged down every piece of significant civil rights legislation since the collapse of Reconstruction nearly a century earlier.
On June 19, 1964, the same Senate chamber where dozens of proposed civil rights legislation had gone to die for decades witnessed the passage of an ambitious civil rights bill that had been almost unimaginable until it happened. On July 2, the House took up and passed the Senate version.
In a signing ceremony at the White House televised to the nation on that same day, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. It was the moral equivalent of the Emancipation Proclamation for millions of Americans who were “free” only on the pages of children’s history books.
I don’t remember what I was doing on that hot day 57 years ago when, with the stroke of a pen, LBJ jolted American democracy from the patriotic somnambulance of the previous century into a recognition that we had a long way to go to fulfill our democratic potential.
I can’t possibly account for what I was doing that day nearly six decades ago, but the romantic in me would like to think that maybe it was that same day that my mom, instead of being annoyed by my incessant whining for ice cream, uncharacteristically picked me up for a sprint behind the slow-moving Mr. Softee truck as it made its way down the block playing its circus-like theme music at top volume.
Did she really buy ice-cream for all the kids who streamed after the truck with us, as I vaguely recall? Probably not, but I remember a day – most likely that summer – when, after chasing down that truck with me in her arms, she bought me an ice-cream sandwich instead of the much cheaper vanilla ice-cream cone with sprinkles that had been our routine.
I’d like to think it was her way of celebrating the signing of the Civil Rights Act in the only way a 4-year-old would understand – through the deliciously exquisite pain of brain freeze caused by the first ice-cream sandwich I’d ever had. Whenever it happened, it created an indelible memory of a summer that has never gone away.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was followed by LBJ signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – legislation designed to cement the civil rights gains of the previous legislative session in which Southern politicians were already hard at work trying to circumvent.
Specific legislation was needed to outlaw literacy tests at the polls, especially in the South, where Black voters were often required to recite whole sections of state constitutions or interpret obscure sections of the law before being allowed to vote.
The fight in the U.S. Senate over the Voting Rights Act was as contentious as the fight over the Civil Rights Act the year before, but it passed by a shocking 77-19. After a monthlong debate in the U.S. House, it passed by a vote of 333-85 on July 9, 1965. LBJ, who used the presidential bully pulpit more effectively than any American president since FDR, happily signed it into law on Aug. 6, 1965.
Suddenly, the U.S. attorney general could investigate the use of modified poll taxes and other sneaky workarounds in local elections that Southern Democrats had come up with to keep Jim Crow on life support as long as possible.
In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court helped the federal government in its quest to bring recalcitrant states in line with civil rights laws by definitively banning the use of all poll taxes in state and local elections.
Poll taxes in federal elections had been banned in 1964, but Confederate dead-enders and other states-rights advocates had managed to hang on to a shrinking island of voter suppression for another few years.
Realizing they were losing the culture war that had enshrined inequality as an American virtue for centuries, their rhetoric changed from openly advocating white supremacy to “protecting the integrity of the vote” from the “unqualified voters” they predicted would flood the polls and imperil democratic apartheid in America.
They especially hated those provisions of the Voting Rights Act that required states that had historically discriminated against Blacks to get federal permission to make any changes, from redrawing precinct boundaries and establishing voting hours to moving polling places and designing the ballots.
Since 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has done everything possible to reverse the democratic momentum embedded in the Voting Rights Act by weakening the section that required states to get federal permission to make changes that would disproportionately affect voters of color.
The assault against voting rights didn’t begin with the Trump administration, but it was exacerbated by the empowerment of a hostile Justice Department and the appointment of three very conservative Supreme Court justices who agree with Justice Roberts that racial discrimination is no longer the existential threat to democracy it once was.
As a practical matter, the Supreme Court has given state legislatures the right to make it more difficult for all citizens to vote as long as absolute access to the ballot box isn’t denied to those who are slowly being disenfranchised.
Weakening the provision of the Voting Rights Act that makes it possible for the federal government to interfere with the power of the state to regulate voter access to the polls has resulted in hundreds of laws being passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in the past few years to roll back ballot access.
Fueled by the maniacal ex-president’s big lie about the 2020 election being “stolen,” the reconstitution of Jim Crow voting patterns and voter suppression schemes across the country is being couched as “voter integrity” and an attempt to “correct” an overreach of federal power that has been tolerated for far too long.
These aren’t even clever updates of the arguments that kept Jim Crow enshrined for decades before LBJ strong-armed the U.S. Congress into doing the right thing. Still, one almost has to admire the brutal efficiency with which this stealthy, multi-front campaign against democracy is being executed, despite the fractiousness of the modern GOP and its descent into cultic Trump worship.
I have three grandsons who are 2 years old and younger. They were born with rights and opportunities recognized by law and tradition that I didn’t have at their age. No one in the generations that came before me would have dreamed that the rights I have now would even have been possible, despite the lofty rhetoric of this nation’s founding documents.
Though my grandsons are decades away from experiencing the creeping angst of disenfranchisement, it is the duty of every citizen who still has unfettered access to the ballot box to feel anxiety on behalf of every member of their generation and vote accordingly.
I was born into a period of American history where my status as a natural born citizen was upgraded by a president who challenged the encrusted prejudices of the American people and their congressional representatives. He was enough of a realist to know that complacent people convinced of their own righteousness rarely do the right thing.
Because of this, I never lose focus on the fact that our “democracy” is literally younger than I am, despite what the history books say. I may not remember the great civil rights battles that swirled around me in the early ’60s, but I know they, not patriotic abstractions, are what made my current life possible. I’m grateful to every soul who stood up, marched, picketed, legislated and voted on my behalf. Their sweat equity made me a first-class citizen.
As Jan. 6 reminded us, democracies are fragile. The right to vote is a precious generational trust that those of us with even the vaguest memories of the world before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts are obliged to protect. We’re no longer children chasing ice-cream trucks down the street. This is a democracy (if we can catch it).