Last week, the US Congress failed to advance urgently needed protections of the right to vote, leaving the fate of our multiracial democracy very much in doubt. The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act sought to restore full and fair access to the ballot in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s disastrous 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. That decision dismantled preclearance requirements for voting jurisdictions that fell under the 1965 Voting Rights Act—and effectively ushered in a new battery of state-sponsored racialized crackdowns on voting rights.
Without the federal safeguards ensuring full participation and representation of historically disenfranchised and marginalized communities, the logic of narrow racialized representation produces policies that shore up the orthodoxies of white impunity. That impunity has spread to copycat legislation targeting the right to vote, the right to protest, and the right to learn. That’s why, for example, the entire Black delegation of the Mississippi State Senate walked out en masse, to protest another demagogic and overbroad bill to ban instruction deemed adjacent to critical race theory in the state’s public schools.
The devastating irony here is that the right to vote was a foundational demand of the original civil rights revolution—and remains at the center of the battle for racial and representational justice in the twenty-first century. Mississippi’s bill renders the teaching of this fundamental truth verboten. The unprecedented walkout in Mississippi makes it clear that the stakes of the fight over the teaching of the racial past in our schools is exactly the same as the fight to secure the fundamental right to vote in a racially unequal American political order. As Mississippi Senator Barbara Blackmon suggested, there is no daylight between racial justice and democracy. “There are 14 Black senators in this chamber, and these 14 are telling you that this bill is morally wrong,” she said. “Yet you ignore the thoughts, positions of these 14 members of this body. So it must be something if all 14 of us feel or think that something is wrong with this bill.”
Mississippi Democratic Senate leader Derrick Simmons explained the irony of this whitewash of Black history. “The people who threw rocks at Ruby Bridges for trying to go to school are now upset that their grandchildren might learn that they threw rocks at Ruby Bridges for trying to go to school.” Simmons said. “To improve Mississippi and America, the truth must be told. White children, Black children, my children, your children should hear the history of slavery, the civil rights movement, the uncontrolled killing of Black Americans. They should hear that history and decide they want to make Mississippi a better place together.”
Now that federal lawmakers—under the sway of the racist and undemocratic institution of the filibuster—have failed to follow through on basic guarantees of voting rights, more and more of our country finds itself in the same position that the Black senate delegation in Mississippi did. And in the many struggles ahead, we would do well to heed their example of direct, collective action in the face of intolerable directives to restore a state of apartheid in our public life. AAPF commends the entire Black delegation of Mississippi’s State Senate who took a stand against these unconscionable bills that seek to gag Black history.