This week marks the commemoration of several events critical to the expansion of civil rights in the United States. The women’s suffrage movement celebrated the passage of the 19th Amendment 93 years ago this week. Nearly 41 years after Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton first drafted the petition that would launch this movement, the 19th Amendment expanded the right to vote to include women.
Fifty years ago Wednesday, nearly 300,000 African-American men and women joined together with icons of the civil rights movement on the National Mall for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to listen to Martin Luther King. Their goals were numerous and epitomize common sense today, but represented significant progress at the time. Many of these ambitions would soon be enshrined as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This country has taken important steps toward progress in the five decades since the March on Washington. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed many forms of systemic discrimination that had plagued many areas of the country since Reconstruction. Inequitable practices like poll taxes, literacy tests, ‘whites only’ establishments, and discriminatory hiring practices were to be made things of the past.
While the process behind these changes in the law took years of suffering and tragedy, the end result was accomplished with the stroke of a pen. It would take even more time to accomplish the changes in society prescribed by the legislation, changes that would make tragedies like the murder of Emmett Till incongruous to society.
As we commemorate these events and the steps toward progress they represent this week, it is unfortunate to reflect on the past few years and the troubling steps backward. A woman’s right to choose, first allowed by the Supreme Court forty years ago, is slowly being rolled back through a series of troubling state actions.
The physical protections guaranteed in the Violence Against Women Act initially received broad bipartisan support. Congress has swiftly reauthorized the measure twice since then. This year however, the legislation stalled over provisions that provided legal protections to Native Americans as well as Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Americans and undocumented immigrants.
The right to vote, sacrosanct to the American democratic process and protected by the Voting Rights Act, is being carefully picked apart at the state level. Now, with the blessing of the Supreme Court, statehouses across the country are aggressively restricting access to the ballot box.
We’ve made remarkable progress in extending civil rights protections, rights once only afforded to land-owning white males. In the 50 years since the March on Washington and the 93 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, racial and gender equity has improved by leaps and bounds. But we cannot be complacent. Inequalities remain, and misguided efforts that will take us backwards continue.