This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. In the years since its passage, our country and the world have come to hold the right to vote as the crown jewel of civil liberties. More than 200 years ago Thomas Paine declared, “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which all other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery.” While this sentiment encapsulates the spirit underlying the pursuit of suffrage for all Americans, Paine’s words also capture the universal desire to be heard and to be counted. The Orange Revolution in the Ukraine is among the most recent manifestations of this desire, events to which the world bore witness.
Marking forty years of the Voting Rights Act is of tremendous personal significance. As a young man growing up in Richmond, Virginia, a century after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, I saw firsthand how important securing the unimpeded right to vote was to my community. At that time, African Americans struggled against legal barriers, as well as threats against their physical well-being, simply to cast their ballots. Passage of the Voting Rights Act unequivocally signaled that our country was committed to ensuring every citizen’s right and ability to vote. It represented muscle and political will. It acknowledged that the right to vote makes a person a fully recognized citizen, but also insisted that the exercise of that right makes a person a fully realized one.
Since 1965, the political landscape of the United States has undergone a sea change. Recent elections have brought the second black man to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction; a Chinese American completed a second term as governor of Washington; and another black man, L. Douglas Wilder, became the first popularly elected African American mayor in Richmond, a city that was a seat of the Confed-eracy. These elections are but a selection of the healthy, young shoots rooted in the Voting Rights Act, demonstrating that you reap what you sow.
The American Bar Association has been a longtime cultivator of the Voting Rights Act. In 1981 the ABA adopted a policy supporting the extension of the Act; at this year’s Annual Meeting, the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities will bring forward a new report with a recommendation calling for the same. In 2004 the Section cosponsored the nonpartisan Election Protection Program with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law to encourage voter participation and protecting every citizen’s right to vote.
Martin Luther King Jr. observed that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. The Voting Rights Act has been a mighty force in the bending.
Robert J. Grey Jr. is the current president of the American Bar Association, the second African American to hold that post. He is a partner in the Richmond, Virginia, office of Hunton and Williams.