A half century ago 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. They marched for jobs, basic freedoms that had long been denied, and to listen to Martin Luther King.
Many of their demands would seem common sense today. At the time however, they represented significant steps toward progress and were later enshrined as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This landmark legislation outlawed the many forms of discrimination, formal and informal, that were commonplace across much of the U.S.
It’s been over five decades since we did away with these Jim Crow-era practices and made discriminatory laws like poll taxes and literacy tests things of the past. That is why it is even more sad and alarming that across the country state legislatures are carefully picking apart many of the things those 300,000 marchers came to D.C. to protest in 1963.
While the process that brought about these tremendous reforms was filled with suffering and tragedy, with the blessing of the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder last year, Tea Party extremists have been able to roll back the very protections the Civil and Voting Rights Acts were meant to uphold with remarkable ease. Onerous voter ID laws and restrictive voter and absentee registration processes are blocking access to the ballot for many. Even worse, state sanctioned purges of the voter rolls are stripping people of their right to vote completely.
We’ve made remarkable progress in extending civil rights protections, rights once only afforded to land-owning white males. Racial and gender equity has improved by leaps and bounds, but we cannot be complacent. Even as we fight to prevent the degradation of the voting rights so many struggled for, we need to recognize and address other opportunities to fix inequities in society.
Fifty years later, the case for LGBT rights closely parallels the civil rights movement. Where once black soldiers were consigned to separate units, the gay soldiers protecting our freedoms were forced to hide their identity in order to serve. Just as mixed race couples were once forbidden to marry, LGBT couples across the country are fighting for the very same rights, including this week in Virginia.
There will be many moments of celebration this month as we honor the commitment of Civil Rights leaders like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Congressman John Lewis. Between those moments, let’s not forget that a concerted effort to roll back many of the reforms they fought for exists. I will continue to fight these efforts in Congress and look for opportunities to fix other examples of injustice in our society.