50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act: Letter from London
Another year…and yet another milestone anniversary in the Civil Rights calendar.
On 28th August 2013, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s ever-resonant “I Have A Dream” speech.
In 2014, the Civil Rights Act was fifty years young.
And today marks fifty years since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon B. Johnson — glorified in the movie, “Selma” and featured in Act 2 of our extraordinary musical, I DREAM.
With all the racially-charged drama and death on the streets of America in recent times, it is no surprise that many claim that little real progress has been made in civil rights politics over the last half-century. But rather than focusing solely on the undeniable tragedies around us, on this auspicious day let us honour the pioneers and martyrs who marched before us, vowing that we will always treasure this hard-won privilege by getting out and actually voting whenever election time rolls around.
We know all too well that this right that is taken for granted in western democracies is by no means guaranteed in so many other countries around the world. Yet the stats for voter turn-out in idealised western democracies are often nothing short of woeful. Anything above 70% turn-out is highly unusual, which suggests that at least three eligible voters out of every ten are electing not to cast a ballot. Meanwhile, the sad irony remains that it is typically the most disadvantaged in any given society – those who really need to use their vote to change the status quo – who tend to be most poorly represented at the polling booths. Even in the relatively peaceful U.K., where this year the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (an early ‘bill of rights’) is being commemorated, young women aged 18-24 are statistically the least likely to vote and less than half of them (44%) voted in the U.K.’s General Election of 2010. This is despite the sacrifices of their suffragette sisters a century before. Why young people feel so disconnected from the democratic process is the subject of ongoing debate. However, just prior to the most recent General Election in May this year, a newspaper article written by a privileged, young Oxford University graduate argued against voting, on the basis that it gives way too much credibility to politicians who don’t deserve it.
And yet, real change can happen through the ballot box, when many normally apolitical or apathetic people are mobilised in large numbers to get out and vote. The election of the USA’s first African-American president is just one epic example — one which would have delighted Dr King and others, whose struggles led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act.
The British wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, once said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. So for the time being, let’s embrace the imperfections of the best version that we have and make sure that we exercise the rights that we have been guaranteed, for the glory of those, who like Dr. King, his comrades-without-arms and other unsung heroes of similar movements all over the world, broke through the barriers of oppression for the benefit of us all.
Déj Mahoney & Sola Mahoney