As we enjoy the bright days of summer, we should take time to reflect on two important anniversaries. Fifty years ago, this summer, America and the world watched one of the most iconic moments of the Civil Rights Movement unfold. And it was ninety-five years ago that Texas took a large step forward for women. Both anniversaries concern a right we as Texans hold dear: the right to vote, through which we express our desires and priorities as citizens.
In 1964, scores of young people, black and white, energized with a spirit of racial justice converged on the state of Mississippi. They had journeyed there to help register African-Americans to vote. That season of heroism and insurmountable determination became known as the Freedom Summer. Only a small fraction of eligible African-Americans in the state were registered. In Mississippi, as in other places across the country, an entrenched establishment resisted allowing racial diversity to express its voice through the political process.
But soon after the summer began, tragedy ensued. Late that June, three volunteers disappeared after first being arrested by local police: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. On August 4, 1964, their bodies were found. They had been murdered by people who were willing to kill to prevent African-Americans from voting. But the young men had not died in vain. Outrage over their deaths ultimately led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The right of women to vote was itself the culmination of a long struggle. Since our country’s birth, women have fought to have their voices heard in the halls of power. Women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery were often discussed together. Indeed, Frederick Douglass was among the earliest and most prominent male supporters. In the last part of the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote the text of a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. It would not be until 1919, though, that Congress finally proposed it to the states. On June 28, 1919, Texas became the ninth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.
Honoring these two anniversaries allows us to measure the great strides we have made. Were it not for the political ripples that spread out from the Freedom Summer, we would not have known the great vision and leadership of a Barbara Jordan or a Mickey Leland. Had brave and tireless women not demanded the right to vote, we Texans would never have had trailblazers like Irma Rangel, Ann Richards, and Kay Bailey Hutchinson.
Today, though, many Texans face some of the same challenges that the Voting Rights Act and women’s suffrage sought to remedy. Soon, a federal court in Corpus Christi, TX, will consider whether Texas’ restrictive voter ID law, passed in 2011, violates the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Previously, a panel of federal judges in Washington, D.C., determined that implementation of Texas’ voter ID law would result in a discriminatory impact on minority voters, while noting during the trial that women whose last names had been changed through marriage or divorce could be disproportionately harmed, as well.
Whether the Voting Rights Act will continue to provide Texans with the protections it was meant to assure hinges on the outcome of that trial. It is sobering to consider that lives were lost toward a cause that may eventually be rendered hollow.
Our state and our nation are stronger when all of our voices – regardless of race, gender or economic stature – are included in political dialogue. Speaking our priorities through our votes assures public accountability in education, infrastructure investment and an economy that works for all Texans, not just a select few.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the efforts of those who risked their lives in order to guarantee each of us the precious right to vote, let us take a moment to consider their work. And this November, let us honor the memory of those who fought to assure that we were granted our most sacred of Constitutional privileges by making our voices heard at the ballot box. Remaining silent by failing to vote does them a disservice and carries tremendous consequences.