by Nicole Austin-Hillery, Director and Counsel of Washington, D.C. Office, The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
*This post originally appeared on The Brennan Center’s blog
Congress went home last week without tackling several critical issues facing our country. This is common in an election year. But this year should have been different. For the first time in nearly five decades, Americans will go to the polls in November without a key protection under the Voting Rights Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court gutted last year in Shelby County v. Holder. When Congress comes back in September, leaders of both parties must act to ensure every citizen can freely cast a ballot.
Today, on the 49th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, it’s worth looking back at how far our nation has come on voting discrimination and race, and how we can move forward together to ensure equality and justice for all.
The America we knew in 1965 was vastly different than the one we know now. The civil rights struggle showed our country through a black and white prism. President Lyndon Baines Johnson spoke of this race divide when he signed the VRA, which made it illegal for states to discriminate based on race in voting.
“The stories of our Nation and of the American Negro are like two great rivers,” he said, “flow[ing] through the centuries along divided channels.” Only after the Civil War, Johnson remarked, did the two rivers begin “to move toward one another.” And a century later, the VRA would allow the two currents to “finally mingle and rush as one great stream across the uncertain and the marvelous years of the America that is yet to come.”