Friday, March 13, 2015

Selma, Sacrifices, Suffrage, Supreme Court

The day I arrived in the United States for the first time, I was a 16-year old Filipino boy fulfilling a dream come true. It was the same day when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his now immortal “I Have a Dream” Speech.

Amongst the company of teenage-dreamers from all over the world, we gathered at the beautiful campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.  We were brought here to experience living in the largest and freest democracy in the world.

Men of vision, dreams and idealism led America. Young, smart, and charismatic, President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy were displaying a rare kind of leadership that touched the hearts and minds of both the old and new generation not only in America but also the free world.

Confident and proud of the democratic values that America represented, young scholars and leaders worldwide like us were invited to learn, live, and love these values so that they be shared and embraced in our respective homelands.

After a tumultuous historical year, I left America full of unforgettable memories, convinced more than ever that it was a model for democracy.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment was law. It said,

 The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Indeed, the right to vote is a cornerstone of democratic governance and a fundamental element of citizenship.  This link between democracy and the electoral process is in fact captured in Article 21(3) of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states:

“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or equivalent free voting procedures.”

To show that the United Nations is really committed to this principle, it was reported, “Over the last 20 years, the United Nations has provided electoral assistance to more than 110 Member States and/or territories that have requested support.”

As democracy spreads, so has the role of elections as the means to establish legitimate government. Putting its money where its mouth is, the UN allocated US$1.2 billion for this electoral assistance project.

The United States of America continues to take the lead in the fight for the democratization of countries in governing legitimately and effectively. I saw this as an exchange student during the tenure of John F. Kennedy.  Thousands of Americans had in fact sacrificed their lives in so many wars for this cause. This seems to continue even to this day.

In 1870, the right to vote was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.  On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.  Yet, despite these guarantees, many African Americans were still prevented from voting.

Local organizations in Selma, Alabama joined forces with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”) to challenge these restrictions and get Alabamans to register to vote.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership lent their full support.

It culminated with a march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, the “Bloody Sunday”, and ultimately to the passage of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. That was about 100 years after the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964” gave Negroes some part of their rightful dignity, but without the vote it was dignity without strength.”

The day the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in a 5-4 ruling in 2012 was a sad day for the advocates of the right of suffrage.

“The Supreme Court has effectively gutted one of the nation's most important and effective civil rights laws,” Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. “Minority voters in places with a record of discrimination are now at greater risk of being disenfranchised than they have been in decades. Today's decision is a blow to democracy. Jurisdictions will be able to enact policies which prevent minorities from voting, and the only recourse these citizens will have will be expensive and time-consuming litigation.”

Is America still a model for democracy guaranteeing its citizens the right to choose those who would govern? President Obama himself in his speech in Selma last Sunday reveals the stunning reality: “Right now, in 2015, fifty years after Selma, there are laws across the country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.”

Lent is currently celebrated and observed in Christian churches. Part of the ritual is “fasting” as people pursue paths of life that they value. As one Nobel Economist pointed out, the difference between starving and fasting is the existence of “freedom to choose.”

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