Women’s Rights and Voting Rights: How Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dream is Not Fully Realized

During this week’s commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day, I noticed how Dr. King’s legacy of peaceful protest, compassionate collaboration, and inspirational revolution has paved the way for the recent women’s rights movement.  Following in the footsteps of 1963’s historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, during which Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech”, last year the Women’s March on Washington made American history as the largest single-day demonstration. On January 21st, women of all ages, races, and socio-economic status plan to march again, this time bringing recognition to the importance of voting rights, an issue Dr. King fervently supported, and greater female representation in government with “Power to the Polls” as their rallying theme.

Despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a piece of legislation invalidating measures designed to disenfranchise African Americans, more than half a century later, the right to vote may still be abridged for many individuals.  In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court struck down the “coverage formula” or Sec. 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which mandated that Southern districts with a history of voting suppression, receive federal preclearance from the Justice Department before enacting legislation concerning voting. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”  According to the Brennan Center for Justice, between 2011 to 2015, twenty-one states adopted new laws making it more difficult to vote in ways that disproportionately affect low-income and minority populations, such as requiring a photo ID or shortening hours at polling stations.

In parallel to a rapid increase in legislation aimed at reducing access to the ballot, since 2010, a dramatic rise in gerrymandering has shifted the political balance across the country. While racial gerrymandering has been deemed unconstitutional, for the first time on January 9th, a trial court cited political disenfranchisement in ordering North Carolina’s Republican legislators to re-draw extremely partisan district boundaries, however, the Supreme Court recently blocked the lower court’s order.  In the 2016 election, although Republican congressional candidates won only slightly more than half of the state’s popular vote, they took 10 out of NC’s 13 congressional districts. I wondered if partisan gerrymandering has an equally discriminatory effect for minority voters as racial gerrymandering.

In his “Give Us the Ballot” speech delivered in 1957 Dr. King stated, “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me.”  As women have historically been considered unable to think for themselves, I thought this excerpt aptly captures the call for an expansion of accessibility to the ballot not only for women, but for all Americans in the Power to the Polls march.