By Robert Dilday
Leaders of the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc. gathered on Capitol Hill June 25 to advocate for stronger voting rights protection, urging legislators to adopt two bills currently winding their way through Congress.
Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the initiative was prompted by concerns that recent court decisions have weakened voting rights, allowing states to place restrictions on access to the polling booth with measures such as photo IDs.
“At the time [the Voting Rights Act] was signed into legislation, it was viewed as the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement,” PNBC President James Perkins told leaders at a breakfast to launch the day-long advocacy event. “Today marks the second anniversary since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and knocked down the requirement that states which have demonstrated a pattern of discrimination must submit changes in their voting laws to federal courts for approval.”
Perkins, who is pastor of Greater Christ Baptist Church in Detroit, said the court’s reasoning was that national attitudes toward race have changed since 1965. But the June 17 killing of nine black members at a church in Charleston, S.C., by a white man apparently motivated by racial hatred suggests that’s not true, he said.
“Those people were not killed because they were Methodist. They were killed because they were black.”
Participants in the advocacy day heard from several members of Congress, including John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of the civil rights movement, before fanning through House and Senate office buildings to encourage congressmen and senators to support two bills.
One, the Voting Rights Amendment Act, was introduced in the House in 2014. The second, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, was introduced in the Senate June 24.
“There are forces that want to take us back, but we’re not going back. We’re going forward,” said Lewis, who is a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. “We’re still saying, ‘Give us the ballot.’”
Raphael Warnock, Ebenezer’s pastor and chair of the PNBC’s social justice commission, said key events in the civil rights movement 50 years ago are getting renewed attention, especially in films like “Selma,” which portrays the groundbreaking voting rights march in 1965.
But he added: “The irony is that everyone is celebrating Selma and we’ve got a weakened Voting Rights Act.”
“This is the Lord’s work. This is about making the gospel alive.”
When the Supreme Court invalidated a key enforcement provision of the VRA in 2013, it acknowledged racial discrimination continues and urged Congress to revise the act’s enforcement components to make them constitutionally compatible. In the two years since, however, no congressional legislation has been adopted. The two proposed bills would remedy that, said PNBC leaders.
“If Congress doesn’t act soon, the American people will experience the first presidential election in more than 50 years without the crucial protections of the Voting Rights Act,” Perkins said in a June 24 statement. “For two years, Congress has dragged its feet on this issue and let voting discrimination weaken our democracy. As it first did in 1965, and for every reauthorization since then, Congress must come together now to protect the right to vote for all Americans.”
Maryanne Henderson, a Duke Divinity School student who is working with the New Baptist Covenant this summer, said the PNBC’s advocacy day reignited her passion for justice.
“Today I was reminded that this business of putting flesh to the gospel, proclaiming freedom to the prisoners, setting the oppressed free, moves beyond the sphere of what is known and comfortable,” she said. “Yes, transformation must take place in friendships, in conversation, but we are at a too vulnerable place in our country to stop there. Every voice in the room called to the church from a place of lament and passion. God calls us to be prophetic, not only in our everyday lives, but in the halls of Congress.”
The Progressive National Baptist Convention will hold its annual meeting in Dallas in August, where it will mark the day — Aug. 6 — when the Voting Rights Acts was adopted and will mobilize support to strengthen it.