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We should be celebrating the VRA today, but we can't

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, fulfilling our democracy’s promise to African Americans still bound by the chains of Jim Crow.

Johnson declared the law a “triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield” and noted that all of our other liberties spring from our access to the ballot box.

We should be celebrating today.

It should be a day for remembering the courageous souls who died in the voting rights struggle – and the thousands of others who risked life and limb to right the great injustice that Johnson said “no American, in his heart, can justify.”

We should be celebrating, but we can’t.

In the last five years, states have enacted a spate of voter-restriction laws at a pace not seen since the beginning of the Jim Crow era in the 1890s. Some of them would not have been possible without the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act.

These new laws – requiring photo IDs, limiting voting hours and early voting, ending same-day registration and more – are designed specifically to suppress turnout among African Americans and other minorities. What’s more, states have gerrymandered legislative districts to limit the voting impact of minorities.

It’s shameful. It’s outrageous. And it’s un-American.

We must commit to reclaiming the ballot box for the many Americans who are now losing access as the result of a decades-long campaign to erase the Voting Rights Act.

We must demand that lawmakers roll back restrictive laws and expand – not restrict – access to the ballot. There can be no justification under our most fundamental democratic principles for any other course.

To help encourage voting and the push for voting rights, we’re making our new Teaching Tolerance documentary, Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot, available free to community groups.

Please join us in this historic fight for the heart of our democracy. Encourage voting in your community – and tell Congress to pass a new Voting Rights Act. Together, we can make a difference.