Seeing Hope in the Voting Rights Act Setback

This week I was going to turn to a message of hope. I was going to let you know about some of the hopeful things I’ve seen recently on the school-to-prison-drug war pipeline issue.  I was going to share about recently meeting a few elderly people who were marching in boycott outside of a local Wells Fargo bank, because Wells Fargo is a major financier ($100 million of stock) of GEO group, one of the private prison owners in North Carolina, where many D.C. Prisoners and immigration detainees are sent. Check out the website: www.wellsfargoboycott.com. I was going to share about a the recent debut of a new film produced by the South Jersey Theater Ensemble, titled “Don’t Throw Me Away” (in which my husband Bill plays  a role).  It’s about the trend in New Jersey, just like in so many other states, to spend more on prisons and less on supporting our kids in schools.  (More information about this great little film, later). I was going to let you know that the American Baptist denomination invited Michelle Alexander, the author of  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a book sharing the concern for the mass incarceration of our children, to be a speaker at their biennial gathering, so this concern could be shared with thousands of American Baptists.

I was going to share a recent article by Ariana Huffington in the Huffington Post that highlights a new film “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” which castigates the War on Drugs. Here’s a tidbit to encourage you to read the article, which also highlights the history of the Huffington Post challenging the war on drugs: “That’s why it’s so important that we all lend our voices to a conversation that can reach Washington and finally overwhelm the entrenched forces that keep this disastrous war — a war not on drugs but on our people — going year after devastating year.”

That quote captures what I was ready to focus on, the need to organize so that we can move from conversation to action in order to make this thing right. From these and other initiatives that I’ve shared with you (See my March 14 Post: A Must See, the March 21 post:  A Stellar Model for Action, websites like The Sentencing Project and books like Michelle Alexander’s, mentioned above), I believe that God is sending prophetic voices to speak truth that needs to be heard in powerful places, and I think that the time is ripe to make change happen.

But I now have to step back.

All of us who seek justice for our children have been pushed back 40 years, to the time when our government enacted one of the most important pieces of legislation to help our people live free, survive and try to thrive in this land where our ancestors were brought as slaves.  The Supreme Court of the United States knocked down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the section that required states (and some counties) with a history of voting rights violations, mostly in the south, to get approval from the Federal government before they made any changes to how elections were run.  This provision is what gave substance to our demand for civil rights, and it worked well.  But the Supremes decided that the states in the South no longer had a problem with race and voting, and sent the Voting Rights Act back to Congress to rework the provision to adjust to modern times. Click here for a good article about what the Supreme Court did with the Voting Rights Act.

The failure is also in the Congress, which had been warned in an earlier opinion that continuing to rely on 40-year old data to justify the monitoring of those states was not going to last forever.  But can we expect any more from this Congress?  Can we expect them to do what would be the right thing, to evaluate the purposes behind all of the recent gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws that states are enacting in order to restructure Section 5 to make it work for the time we live in now? That doesn’t seem to be likely, at all.

You see, we need to have people in Congress and in the our state legislative bodies who will represent our views on things like the War on Drugs.  If those who create the voting rules work it out so that we no longer have a representative voice, the only thing left for us to do is to go back to the streets, boycott, March on Washington, etc.  Which is what worked 40 years ago.  (I guess that’s why so many of us really empathized with the recent Occupy Movement.) So now we face a more basic problem–we must protect our ability to  attack problems in the political arena. Now we have to step back and focus on what’s most important.  Makes you wanna holler!  Makes me wanna cry. But we have to do it.

And there is always hope.  God sometimes sends us into difficult situations to move us into the new vision that God has for us.  Just this morning I found an article by Christine Pelosi entitled “We Have No Civil Rights without Voting Rights,” which makes the connection between the importance of the Voting Rights Act, the filibuster by Texas Senator Wendy Davis and the LGBT win on DOMA.  The more people understand the importance of what has happened with the Voting Rights Act, the sooner we’ll be able to make sure that this crucial law is rejuvenated, so that states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which were not under the provision of the Act, as well as states like Texas and of course, Florida, don’t get away with recent restrictive voting laws designed to keep their favored party–and policies– in control. We must push Congress to do what is right.

As I once heard a preacher say, “A setback is just a setup for a comeback.” With hope, all things are possible. And with faith and hard work we can make this happen, just like we elected President Obama for a 2nd term.