Democracy Is Ours to Demand | Opinion

The ongoing war on voting rights isn't new or even particularly original—it neatly follows the blueprint that's been wielded ever since emancipation. A poll tax is a poll tax, whether it's levied in the form of a $1 fee, or an eight-hour wait in a voting line. In fact, even accounting for inflation, at a full day's wages we're charging more than ever for the ballot.

The attendant violence isn't new, either. I've seen white police officers beating marchers demanding the vote as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. I saw rocks thrown at children integrating schools. Closer to home, my childhood eyes saw cops viciously beat a neighbor while arresting him for outstanding parking tickets. I heard his cries, saw his head bleeding and saw their red faces twisted in rage. It was Derek Chauvin's white rage: casual murder, delivering 9 minutes and 29 seconds of torture—simply because he could.

All of it, the laws, and the lynching, don't just disenfranchise voters and cast a specter of terror, they fundamentally degrade our government. As states continue to shutter polling places, gerrymander districts and pass laws with no purpose other than to disenfranchise citizens, faith in government teeters on the brink. On the far-right, elected representatives are openly musing about civil war, and a recent study found that only 20 percent of Americans are very confident about the integrity of our elections. To be frankly, count me in that fearful 80 percent.

Democracy depends on people's belief in its legitimacy. If that trust is shattered, we will tumble further into a vicious cycle of violence—as people reject the validity of governance and force becomes the only way to induce compliance to our social contract.

 Detail view of a voting booth
Detail view of a voting booth. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

But if our nation's history provided the roadmap for stealing folks' ability to vote, it also offers a prescription for how we can restore that sacred right. My great-uncle George Jordan lived on Sunflower Street in Ruleville, Miss. around the corner from Fannie Lou Hamer. An ordinary man, raising a family and working a couple of jobs to pay his mortgage, he walked with her up and down dirt roads and into town to register people to vote. And he kept at it even when he was threatened with violence; even when the bank threatened to take his house. He knew that he was a child of God, he knew his neighbors were, too. He saw injustice and saw the vote as the way to claim his humanity.

One of the most basic lies people tell about the civil rights movement is the pretense it was primarily driven by soaring rhetoric from folks like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The truth is the power came from the legions of people standing behind him who demanded this country make good on its promise of democracy.

When Dr. King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on May 17, 1957, and condemned how, "all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters," it was the crowd around him that lent those words strength. When he proclaimed, "The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal," it was the anguished howl of people whose freedom was withheld that forced the government to listen. When he demanded, "Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence," it was the courage of ordinary people that transformed oratory into legislation.

You and I might not feel we have the justice-warrior skills of Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis, Ella Baker or Fannie Lou Hamer. But here is the thing: They were ordinary folks—like us, like my great-uncle George—who saw wrong and sought to right it. You are the only person standing exactly where you stand, seeing precisely what you see, from your vantage point, through the lens of your story. And you have the power to make the government listen. We are the midwives to help our democracy give birth to its better self.

Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis' great-uncle
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis' great-uncle George Jordan in Ruleville, Miss., in 1959. Photo Courtesy of Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis

We must meet the hatred that would erode our rights with fierce love. That means love in the form of looking at folks with whom we have enmity and seeing that their thriving and surviving is connected to ours. Love in the form of a mission to cut through the noise of toxic politics and legislate policies that serve all our children well. Love in the form of putting our own bodies in the street to demand a just society—that refuses to let political saboteurs steal the votes people died to win. The only way we can restore faith in our democracy is to ensure every person shapes the way they're governed. To change the narrative, we must demand Congress pass the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. We are the ones we've been waiting for—authors of a new American story.

The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis is the first female or Black senior minister at the historic Collegiate Churches of New York City, an Auburn Senior Fellow and the author of Fierce Love: A Bold Path to Ferocious Courage and Rule-Breaking Kindness That Can Heal the World (Penguin Random House 2021).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.