I grew up wondering what it must have been like living through the most monumental moments in American history, like the civil rights movement when the work of civil rights icons culminated in the passage of crucial federal laws in the 1960s.
But I came to learn that history resonates far more loudly in hindsight than in real time. At the time they happened, the momentous battles now memorialized in history books and documentary series were dismissed. The late heroes of today were villainized when they lived and breathed. Even Martin Luther King Jr., the biggest household name among civil rights icons, whose quotes flood Instagram and Twitter feeds every January around his birthday, was widely unpopular until his dying day.
The fruits of the hard-fought efforts of King and other civil rights crusaders, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of the following year, always seemed through the lens of history as unbreakable pillars that rose from a shared sense of justice — when in fact they barely survived bitter and bare-knuckled political attacks aimed at stopping them.
As the Senate is poised to take up legislation to protect the voting rights of Americans that are being eviscerated by Republican-controlled state legislatures, the Supreme Court, and the Republican Party, which sees voter suppression as a tool for its very survival, lawmakers cannot afford to miss the battle before them now.
Civil rights protections, like those embodied in H.R. 1, have never been widely embraced in real time. In fact, until 1965, no other civil rights bill — none — survived the Senate-created procedural maneuver that still stands in the way of desperately needed legislation to protect the most fundamental rights of Americans today: the filibuster.
The filibuster is the same device that current lawmakers like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and fellow Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have framed as some magical tool whose survival is essential in the pursuit of bipartisanship and consensus. In fact, the historical record — as explained on the Senate’s own website — shows that the filibuster has always been used as a blunt object to thwart efforts to protect the rights of marginalized Americans.
Ending the filibuster is no longer a game of Capitol Hill inside-baseball. It’s not a right-versus-left partisan slap fight. It is the one existential decision that will determine whether the very voting rights earned through the sweat, tears, and blood shed by King and other civil rights leaders are erased.
This is not a drill. Imagine, decades from now, looking back to this moment in history: Weeks after the US Capitol building came under deadly attack by people who refused to accept as valid the votes of all Americans, including Black and brown voters in places like Detroit and Atlanta, state lawmakers in more than 40 states have offered or passed hundreds of measures to restrict voting access.
This is despite the fact that efforts to expand voting access during the coronavirus pandemic not only led to a record number of Americans casting ballots in the 2020 election, but, according to Republican and Democratic state election officials alike, the election resulted in no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
What that election did result in was historic Democratic wins, including President Biden becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee in nearly three decades to win the state of Georgia.
Now, in that very state and dozens of others, Republicans are seeking to pass laws imposing photo identification requirements on mail-in voting and ending no-excuse absentee voting.
Georgia alone is considering “50 different bills that are doing nothing but trying to restrict access,” voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams said in an NPR interview this week, highlighting the GOP’s lie about voter fraud. “The only justification,” Abrams said, “is that people don’t like the outcome of the 2020 election. They have no evidence. They have no data. They have no proof.”
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, which eight years ago invalidated a critical Voting Rights Act protection against voter suppression, stands ready to limit the remaining power of the law. In that case, an attorney defending Republican efforts to restrict voting admitted, in open court, why they are trying to make voting hard again: “Because it puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats. Politics is a zero-sum game.”
By the time future generations look at 2020 and 2021 the same way I looked at 1964 and 1965, the urgency of this moment will be crystal clear. But by then, it may be far too late.