Martin Luther King Jr. Remembered At All Peoples Celebration
Keynote speaker from the NAACP focused on voting rights challenges
Tom Fudge: You’re listening to Midday Edition, I’m Tom Fudge. In 1965, fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination that prevented African-Americans from voting in many Southern States specifically prevented nine states nearly all of them in the south for making changes to voting requirements without Federal Court approval. But in 2013, in the case or Shelby County v. Holder, a divided Supreme Court said that that crucial element of the Voting Rights Act was on unconstitutional because it relied on facts and realities that were long out of date. Today Martin Luther King Day, we’re pleased to have in our Sand Diego Studios, Ryan Haygood, he is Deputy Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and he is here to talk about voting rights, the Shelby decision and all of the above. So thank you very much for coming in. Ryan Haygood: Thanks for having me Tom, I appreciate the chance to be here this afternoon. Tom Fudge: Well, how do you feel on Martin Luther King Day knowing that this is also the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act? Ryan Haygood: You know Tom, I think this is an important moment for us, the Alliance San Diego hosted an amazing luncheon that both commemorated the legacy of Dr. King and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and we had a chance just now with about a thousand people in attendance to take stock of where we are both recognizing Dr. King’s legacy of fostering and inclusive democracy, but also recognizing the real challenges that lay ahead in advancing our democracy. Tom Fudge: Well, give us a little bit of background to the Voting Rights Act. What were the kinds of this enfranchisement that led to the Voting Rights Act in the first place? Ryan Haygood: Sure, I mean, the voting rights act was really passed at the height of the civil rights movement. It followed nearly a century of resistance by states to make the franchise available to black voters and other voters of color and there is a very good movie, which is out now about the struggle in Selma, Alabama at which the march called Bloody Sunday, the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge that connects Selma and Montgomery, the events there on a Sunday afternoon where peaceful marchers about 600 encountered state troopers in Alabama who violently abuse them and these marchers were there at the dramatized to the world their desire to be part of an inclusive democracy. Five months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act really is recognized as a crowning achieving of the civil rights era. It did a tremendous amount to include voters of color in the political fold and it really was a moment of democratic expansion in this country that led ultimately to the election of an African-American to the highest office in the land twice. Tom Fudge: And has Deputy Director of Litigation for the NAACP, did you work on the Shelby County case? Ryan Haygood: I did. We represented clients in Shelby County and we argued that case in the Supreme Court. It was a devastating decision, in large part, Tom, because the Voting Rights Act in Section 5, the provision that the Supreme Court immobilized in that devastating decision was doing important work in the modern era. So in the last 25 years, this provision of the Voting Rights Act which the Supreme Court ultimately struck had blocked more than one thousand proposed discriminatory changes, 60 percent of which were motivated by intentional discrimination. So, this part of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court ultimately struck was actually doing real work to address real discrimination impacting real voters in real places. Tom Fudge: Now, as you know the court majority said the Voting Rights Act is based on facts and information that are 50 years old, we just can’t make the same assumptions today about how southern states are treating black voters, how do you respond to that? Ryan Haygood: Well, I think that was one of the biggest travesties of that decision, Tom, because the fact is that the record that congress assembled in support of the Voting Rights Act was a contemporary one. It was replete with relevant and very recent examples of the way in which Section 5 block recently discriminatory changes. So for example, in K Kilmichael, Mississippi in 2001, the census showed African-Americans had become a majority of the city for the first time in history and that they were poised to elect a candidate of choice to the City Council, which to that point been all white always. Recognizing these demographic shifts, the City Council in Kilmichael, Mississippi actually cancelled the election and the Department of Justice under Section 5 said actually you can’t just cancel elections, the Department of Justice required Kilmichael to hold an election and then election was a historic one where black voters elected candidates of choice to the City Council, which ultimately ended up being two City Council members who were African-American and an African-American Mayor. So the reality is the Supreme Court was out of touch and the decision that they rendered really reflected their proximity from the harm, that is their distance from the places where voter were encountering racial discrimination in voting. Tom Fudge: My guest this morning is Ryan Haygood; he is Deputy Director of Litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Following the Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013, what are some of the things that happened in some of these Southern States? Ryan Haygood: Oh sure, Tom, I mean as one could predict when the Supreme Court issued this devastating decision in Shelby County states that were previously covered by it as you mentioned all or part of 15 states including several counties here in California were free to enact voting changes that would be challenged in court, but the difference is that under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, voting changes would not go into effect until they were determined not to be discriminatory. Now, states can implement voting changes that are discriminatory and we have to take them to court. So we saw within hours of the Supreme Court’s decision of Shelby County, Texas, the State of Texas announced that it would immediately introduce a photo ID measure that was previously blocked by Section 5 and this photo ID measure would be the most racially discriminatory most restrictive, photo ID measure in the county. Tom Fudge: Now, one of the things that the Supreme Court said is congress can write a new law. Ryan Haygood: Sure. Tom Fudge: Do you expect that’ll happen? Ryan Haygood: Well, Tom on that point congress actually did introduce a new bill to restore the provisions and the power of the Voting Rights Act, it’s called the Voting Rights Amendment Act that was introduced about seven months after Shelby County by small bipartisan group of congress and we are now encouraging as we did in our time with the Alliance San Diego’s 27th peoples celebration to urge their elected officials both in the state and federal level to make passing the Voting Rights Amendment Act a top priority. Tom Fudge: In terms of other remedies, well, I think you talked about the fact that if something happens with a voter ID law or something like that you consider to be agreed as you can sue a state under Equal Protection? Ryan Haygood: Sure. In the wake of the Shelby County decision, we were left with other provisions of the Voting Rights Act. We have Section 2, which we’ve actually used successfully to challenge Texas photo ID law. We could also use the constitution, which we use in Texas as well, but the important thing to recognize here about the sort of place that we are is that following Shelby County, the honest is now on the victims of discrimination to sue whereas pre-Shelby County the onus was on the jurisdictions that would be discriminating to prove, they want it discriminating, so the burden shifting here is significant and as you know litigating these cases is very resource intensive and very expensive, but this is all related to I think the theme of the day as we commemorate Dr. King’s legacy and his vision for fostering an inclusive democracy because he recognized that democracy is not self-executing and that it requires maintenance, and so he entrusted us, those who would follow him, you and I and your listeners to be those who would commit to maintaining our democracy to ensuring fairness and access and equality in the exercise of it and that doesn’t happen unless we take hold both of the promise and the dream that he so dearly held in his legacy here in the United States. Tom Fudge: You know, back in the day, back in the 1960s, when we were talking about these issues, we were looking at world that was pretty much black and white. Now, here in California, our diversity includes Latinos, Asian-Americans young voters, are those groups in need of protection less they’d be disenfranchised? Ryan Haygood: Absolutely, I think that one of striking things we’ve seen in last several years and what the 2010 census has shown us is that by 2042 America will be a country that is a majority people of color and for us at the Legal Defense Fund our work is these demographic changes really foreshadow of political landscape in which voters of color, new voters of color, young voters and women will play a leading role and we’re excited about that, we’re excited about the ways in which our democracy is browning, in which our democracy is becoming younger and more inclusive, but it’s interesting Tom, because those demographics have actually in gender opposition from many states who have tried to pass laws like photo ID measures, we tried to scale back early voting opportunities, expand [indiscernible] [00:09:51] in attempts to constrict democracy and I think Dr. King’s legacy and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act really summon us to do our part to expand democracy toward greater inclusion. Tom Fudge: You know, I almost hate to say this but I wonder if what we’re talking about here in terms of the way we see voter rights is the Democrat versus Republican issue. The Republicans maybe I should say conservative seem to benefit from low voter turnouts. Is there is a partisan political issue? Ryan Haygood: I think it’s interesting to see what the parties do as it relate to the electorate. So I think it’s true that there is a party that favors the status quo that favors keeping the electorate at the size that it is, but for us in the work that we do at the Legal Defense Fund and the work that the King cared about, it really was large in that party, it was about understanding that a democracy is legitimized when more people participate and not less and our work is really around trying to find ways, which I think the Alliance San Diego is a leading voice at doing this and bringing more people into the political fold not less. Tom Fudge: Finally, in the media we spent a lot of time talking about voter apathy and I wonder where do you draw the line between people who are being discriminated against and people who for whatever reason simply don’t feel motivated to get out and vote? Ryan Haygood: I think there’re related messages. I think in communities where because of at large elections for example where voters of color cast their ballots in election after election for candidates of choice, but because of structural barriers, can’t elect their candidates; it’s not surprising that those voters aren’t excited about exercising the right to vote. I think it won’t matter, but there is a message both relevant to folks like that and those who are just playing apathetic and that is that your votes matter, they matter greatly and a democracy is premised on the idea that if you term one better communities, better educational, employment, housing opportunities, access to healthcare, a fair criminal justice system you have to vote. Tom Fudge: Well, it’s Martin Luther King Day and we on Midday had been talking with Ryan Haygood, he is Deputy Director of Litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and thanks for joining us. Ryan Haygood: Tom thanks for having me. Tom Fudge: Coming up next we’ll hear from a San Diego Rabbi who’s written about Stanley Lieberson, one of Martin Luther King’s closest friends and advisors.
Event chairwoman Ashley Walker said the gathering wasn't just about celebrating change, it was about building the capacity to keep working for change.
"We all think that as time goes by we can just have a celebration because everything is done," Walker said. "We are in almost the same place now as we were 50 years ago, with attitudes in the community, issues and actions in the community. And everyone needs to really stop and take a look at what's happening, realize that if they want things to change, they have to actively be a part of that change movement."
The keynote speaker at the event at the Balboa Park Activity Center was voting rights attorney Ryan Haygood of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, who discussed current challenges to voting rights. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law in August 1965, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a part of the law in 2013.
"We've seen in the last several years, particularly since the election of President Barack Obama, states erect a number of impediments to the franchise," Haygood told KPBS Evening Edition. "The heart of the effort is the photo ID effort. In the last several years, more than 30 states have either considered or adopted restrictive, very discriminatory voter ID measures, and this has really become the heart of the voter suppression effort."
At the All Peoples Celebration, San Diego Councilman Todd Gloria said King's messages of equality and civil action should extend to voting choices.
"It's not enough to simply vote on Election Day, although that's really important," Gloria said. "It's also important to encourage people from all walks of life, all corners of this community, to serve in civic life."
Attendee Alfonso Gomez said the event was especially important after the unrest that occurred last year following the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
"It seems like we talk about it after the problem has occurred," Gomez said. "But I hope that those conversations lean more towards getting the right teachers or helping that one student."
National Poetry Slam artist Ant Black and Shivon Carreno performed at the event, along with two-time San Diego Music Award-winning band Kendrick Dial & The Lyrical Groove with special guest Ocean. Whitney Shay, a music award nominee for Best Live Performer and Best Blues Album, also performed with Beston Barnett.
Also on Monday, more than 100 people marched from City Heights to Lincoln Park to celebrate King and call attention to what organizers call an epidemic of police brutality.
United Against Police Terror San Diego, Activist San Diego and the Coalition Against Police Violence were among the groups that took part in the march. Participants were escorted by officers along their four-mile route from the City Heights Library to the Malcolm X Library.
Several community service events were held throughout the region to honor King. Church groups gathered for a cleanup at Balboa Park, while employees of Kaiser Permanente packed supplies at the San Diego Food Bank.