Reflecting on the Voting Rights Act
Monday, August 17, 2015
Posted by: Nick Lee
President Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. at the signing of the Voting Rights Act (Photo: Creative Commons)
Fifty years ago on August 6, 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 into law. This landmark legislation guaranteed the right of every American to vote regardless of their race. The VRA was created in direct response to pervasive, institutionalized voter suppression in the South under Jim Crow laws that excluded the minority vote through measures such as poll taxes and impossible “literacy” or “citizenship” tests that were administered to Black people almost exclusively. Growing up in Greenville, Mississippi during the 1940s and 50s, Stan Lou, OCA’s VP of Education and Culture and lived within this system, which helped him form his opinion about the law.
Growing up Chinese American in the Jim Crow South, Stan acknowledges that the local Chinese Americans were being used as a wedge in race relations between white and Black. According to Stan, “It was a part of the assimilation process to create productive citizens that were also completely subject to rule of the white establishment. The Chinese were given benefits like being allowed to go to white schools to make us feel like we were treated well enough so we didn’t make waves.” Yet, Asian Americans did not escape the cold hand of discriminatory Mississippi laws where it was prohibited for anyone with at least one-eighth Asian blood from marrying whites. Asians were also subject to the Jim Crow laws, but the laws were rarely, if ever, enforced against them.
Though Stan recalls there being a poll tax, he never recalls it being an issue to his parents or their peers. His family was so much more concerned with making ends meet, that they avoided the polls entirely because of the tax. He recalled, “I know my parents never voted, and I don’t think a single one of their friends did either. It’s hard to see the effects of voting restrictions when you are living in near poverty like my family was. Poor people have more things on their mind than trying to vote. They don’t know they are being suppressed.”
It wasn’t until he left the South that he realized how much he was being cheated, that these laws were created for the sole purpose of taking away the vote from people of color, a task that was accomplished with brutal efficiency. However, while the poverty that Stan’s family endured effectively prevented them from voting; Black Americans suffered even more direct and even deadly consequences for trying to exercise their rights: 576 people were lynched in Mississippi, more than in any other State in the country between 1860 and 1940.
In Stan’s view, “What the VRA did was remove restrictions, both subtle and blatant, on voting rights.” He then remarked with a sigh, “But what you see now with photo ID requirements is a shadow of what happened then.” Such laws tend to have a disproportionate effect on the poor. “Poor people don’t carry ID, and most poor people are people of color,” explained Stan. These renewed efforts to suppress the voting power of our communities are now possible since the VRA was weakened by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.
Stan Lou speaking at OCA National Convention in 2013
Proponents of such voting restrictions like Voter ID or proof of citizenship laws claim that these laws exist to reduce fraud despite conclusive evidence proving that voter fraud is virtually nonexistent. According to Stan, “They use the same justifications now that they did back then, that this law is ‘common sense’ and designed to stop voter fraud. However, what matters is the direct effect, and the direct effect is to disenfranchise people of color.”
Stan issues a warning: “If we don’t fight, it will go back to the Jim Crow era, where the people are bought by small handouts, but will always be pawns in a game played by those in power. It’s up to people like me to be outraged. A lot of people who have lived it; have forgot about it. . . . I hope that we can remind others to speak up for those that cannot speak out for themselves. It’s easy to say I made it, and move on, but others still haven’t.”
Some might think that the efforts to suppress voting among communities of color and the poor are not Asian American and Pacific Islander issues. After all, most Asian Americans have little difficulty producing identification and many enjoy economic success. However, many parts of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community remain far behind the norm with some of the lowest economic and educational attainment in the country. These communities are at the greatest risk of having their right to vote suppressed. When you have no vote, you have no voice. It is incumbent on the entire Asian American and Pacific Islander community to come together to ensure that no one remains voiceless.
While Stan Lou's story is uniquely his own, his experiences were shared by hundreds of thousands of people throughout the American South. His call to action reminds each of us of our responsibilities as citizens of this nation: To speak out against injustice, to act against encroachments on our fundamental rights and to reach beyond the AAPI community to lift up all people out of the shadows and into the mainstream of society.
We are the caretakers of this democracy for future generations. If we fail to defend the voting rights gained at great cost by those like the Selma, Alabama marchers and the Freedom Riders, then we have failed in our duty as Americans. Future generations will judge what we do today to preserve the right to vote. Will you choose to ignore the efforts to erode our opportunity to vote or will you take a stand? We must not fall victim to complacency and allow our right to vote to be eroded with only a whimper. We must advocate, we must fight to preserve the important protections to our right to vote, just as we did 50 years ago, in 1965. Call your Congressman today and tell them to support the Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore the VRA. Send an email, fax or letter to follow up with your phone call.