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North Carolina: The New Selma

In the summer of 1964, Andrew Goodman was murdered for trying to register black voters in Mississippi. In a guest blog, David R. Goodman, Andrew’s brother, explores how 1960s voter disenfranchisement relates to North Carolina voting restrictions today.

February 12, 2016

This guest post is from David R. Goodman, brother of Andrew Goodman and president of The Andrew Goodman Foundation.

In the summer of 1964, the Ku Klux Klan murdered my brother, Andrew Goodman, along with fellow civil rights advocates James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, for having the temerity to try to register black voters in Mississippi. One year later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act to protect voting rights, once and for all. Case closed. Right?

Unfortunately, the case is not closed.

Today, Rev. William Barber III, the President of the North Carolina NAACP, says his state is the new Selma. In 1965, nine months after my brother was murdered, Martin Luther King, Jr. chose Selma as the crucible that would bring racial hatred into the limelight. By bringing to light the connection between disenfranchising African Americans and Jim Crow, MLK exposed the ugly face of white supremacy in America.

In a stunning reversal three years ago, in Shelby County vs. Holder, John Roberts’ Supreme Court found that it was no longer necessary to monitor states with a long history of targeting and disenfranchising African Americans. After the ruling, these states wasted no time in imposing new, restrictive, and untraditional voting requirements. The protections that voters were once afforded, protections that would have prevented these restrictive requirements, no longer existed because the Voting Rights Act was gutted.  

Unbeknownst to many Americans, John Roberts has campaigned against the Voting Rights Act for years. I challenge his assertion that the forces that led to the murder of my brother and others are no longer a threat. Racial hatred and prejudice continues to linger in our society. Case in point:  the mass murder in South Carolina last year. Another case in point: the continued glorification of the confederacy and the values that it promoted.

The forces that once worked to suppress the rights of African Americans are still alive and well. Political marginalization continues today. There is, however, a big difference between 1964 and 2016. Today, the marginalized citizens not only include African Americans, but also the poor, the young, the elderly, and the formerly incarcerated.

Today’s disenfranchisement efforts are cleverly disguised. These efforts are not overtly violent, but couched in reasonableness and law, making them seem harmless – until one recognizes the fear of voter fraud is wholly unfounded. Requirements that are onerous to some can seem reasonable to those who have both the time and the resources necessary to overcome difficulties in registering. For many, including myself, owning a home and having a steady income guarantee that voting is easy and transparent. But, what about those who “have not,” either because they are poor, young, elderly or previously incarcerated?

Voter fraud is coded language, and this coded language is used to justify laws and regulations that disproportionally impact certain communities. That is why I am joining Rev. Barber and the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina on February 13. It is my hope that we will bring the attention of all Americans to the importance of protecting the right to vote. 

Voting, a fundamental right, should be made easier – not harder. Our representative democracy requires input from all citizens. When barriers hinder a population’s ability to express its views, the complex system of checks and balances that the framers of our nation put in place to safeguard democracy will fail in their duty. If our voting laws favor the politically privileged, our nation’s policies will continue to reflect their interests only. It is incumbent on those who would benefit from this situation to remember that, once democracy is compromised, our precious freedoms can easily become collateral damage.

“We the people” should be mindful of the rights of our fellow citizens, lest our own rights become a casualty of our unenlightened self-interest.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.