Fifty-eight years ago, on Aug. 28, 1963, over a quarter-million people gathered in the nation's capital to march for civil and economic rights for Black Americans. At the time, Black people across the South were living under the oppressive system of Jim Crow segregation that denied Black people basic human and civil rights, including the right to vote. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom set forth a series of demands that challenged segregation and offered a path for racial equality.
Included in the demands was the need for comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from Congress to guarantee voting rights to all Americans. Historians say the march's focus on voting rights for Black Americans helped set the stage for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which dramatically reshaped the South's political landscape.
"I would put the March on Washington pretty high on the list of important events that framed the pre-history of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, without question," Mark Lawrence, director of the LBJ Presidential Library and a former University of Texas history professor, told KHOU last year.
But in 2013, the U.S. took a big step backwards on voting rights for all when the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case out of Alabama struck down the formula the VRA used to determine which states and counties had to get approval for elections changes with the U.S. Department of Justice, effectively gutting the landmark law. The ruling led to an onslaught of state voter suppression legislation that curbs the power of an increasingly diverse electorate.
In Shelby's wake, 11 of the 13 Southern states have adopted restrictive voting measures. This year alone, following last year's record-breaking presidential election turnout, Republican lawmakers in 48 states using exaggerated and false claims of fraud have introduced almost 400 bills that would limit voting, and at least 22 have already been enacted, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Many of these bills have been introduced in Southern states including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.
Amid this ongoing push continuing to restrict voting, civil rights organizers are once again preparing for a mass march on Washington, with simultaneous marches also planned for Atlanta, Houston, Miami, and Phoenix. On Aug. 28, the anniversary of the 1963 event, March On for Voting Rights will demand that congressional leaders end the Senate filibuster and pass two pieces of federal voting rights legislation that are currently stalled in the Senate: the For the People Act, comprehensive pro-democracy legislation that has been called the "the next great civil rights bill," and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore provisions of the VRA undone by the Shelby ruling.
"Across America and especially in the South, the people we elected to defend democracy are instead working to destroy it from the inside by passing laws based on a lie about voter fraud, which will disproportionately keep Black and Brown Americans away from the ballot box or punish them with hours-long waits when they persevere," said Andi Pringle, March On's strategic and political campaigns director.
The initiative was announced on June 23, the day after Senate Republicans blocked the For the People Act. Promoting it are a diverse group of labor and civil rights activists including Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered one of his most famous speeches at the 1963 march.
"It disheartens me to say that as a country and society, we are not even close to where my father hoped we would be since delivering his 'I Have a Dream' speech 58 years ago," said King, who chairs the board of the Drum Major Institute.
Despite a series of voting rights protests over the summer involving civil rights leaders, low-wage workers, members of the clergy, and state lawmakers, the closely divided Democratic-led Senate adjourned for a month-long recess on Aug. 11 without any movement on voting rights legislation.
During the upcoming marches, protesters will focus on pressuring Democrats who oppose eliminating the filibuster, which has a long history of being used to obstruct key civil rights legislation. They include Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
"We cannot let a Jim Crow filibuster — which is what the filibuster has been used for — stand in the way of our voting rights," Rev. Al Sharpton, among the civil rights leaders organizing the march, said in a recent call with reporters.
This will be the second year in a row that organizers have commemorated the 1963 March on Washington with a rally for voting rights and racial equality. Last year's Get Your Knee Off Our Necks Commitment March in Washington, coming after a summer of protests sparked by George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police, called for both federal voting rights legislation and police reform. Tens of thousands of people attended that march in support of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Ac and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which also remains stalled in Congress.
"On the 58th anniversary of Dr. King's historic March on Washington, Americans will come together to say that we will not sit by as our nation sinks back into the Jim Crow era in which the principle of 'one person, one vote' is nothing more than a mirage," said Pringle.