In the last speech of his life, on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. laid out the case for the dignity and equality of African-Americans as simply as he could. “We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people,” he said. “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”
The moral clarity of that appeal is bracing, and so is the difficulty of achieving it - a fact that is evident nowhere as much as in the fight for voting rights. As Dr. King knew well, the history of voting in the United States was, and is, in large part the history of white people in power devising endless ways to keep black people from casting a ballot.
Dr. King understood this half a century ago, which is why he considered the right to vote the centerpiece of the civil rights movement. “Voting is the foundation stone for political action,” he wrote in an essay titled “Civil Right No. 1,” which ran in The New York Times Magazine in March 1965, days after the march and bloodshed in Selma and months before the Voting Rights Act would become law.
This is an important step toward a robust judicial defense of voting rights. Now Congress must repair the damage the Supreme Court inflicted on the Voting Rights Act. The most important fix is to restore and strengthen the federal government’s oversight of states and localities that continue to discriminate in voting.