Elijah Cummings

Last week, as our nation marked the 50th Anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, I recalled our struggles here in Baltimore during that earlier time when I was young.

I remembered how Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Esq., of the Baltimore NAACP taught the young people of my South Baltimore neighborhood that we had rights that others had to respect — and how that lesson made all of the difference in the way we viewed ourselves and our future in this country.

Then, in August of 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., raised his voice from the Lincoln Memorial, declaring that: “We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”

His declaration was both insightful and prophetic.

While others were arguing for change “by any means necessary,” Dr. King rested his faith in the progress that we could achieve through the power of the polling place.

He did so with the clear understanding that equality in voting is not an abstract goal, but, rather, that our civic engagement must move this nation toward greater opportunity in all of the meaningful aspects of our lives.

As official Washington of that time pondered and debated Dr. King’s stirring words, our nation was inspired by the courage that a young John Lewis, Hosea Williams and the people of Selma, Alabama, demonstrated in the face of violent reaction on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.

African Americans were crying out for tangible improvements in the quality of our lives.  The marches continued — and for millions upon millions of our countrymen and women, my own family included, America began to change for the better.

Within two years after Dr. King’s stirring declaration of faith at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, his vision of constructive change had been translated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and “Great Society” initiatives that addressed our education, our medical care, and our most onerous economic hardships.

As President Obama observed last week during the August 6 conference celebrating the legacy of the Voting Rights Act, we rightly honor those who carried our democracy forward by their courage, their determination and their sacrifice.  Yet, as now Congressman John Lewis of Georgia reminded America in Selma last March, “There’s still work to be done.”

Pervasive efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act’s protections have invaded the Congress, the United States Supreme Court and far too many of our state legislatures.

When a slim, 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act’s protections, there is still work to be done.

When the Republican majority in the Congress refuses to give our efforts to correct the Supreme Court’s decision in {Shelby County v. Holder} even a floor debate and up-or-down vote, there is still work to be done.

When Republican-dominated state legislatures enact discriminatory voter identification requirements, roll back early voting and encourage improper and racially targeted purges of their voting rolls, there is still work to be done.

President Obama offered these observations for a reason.

It was just and proper that we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this month – but our more lasting response must be one of recommitment to Dr. King’s vision of universal democratic participation in the decisions that affect our lives.

The gains of 50 years ago are under relentless attack, and only a nation-wide, sustained commitment by everyday Americans will protect that vision of a better, more equal and more humane nation that our civil rights heroes and heroines advanced five decades ago.

The struggle for greater justice in our society has not ended.  Indeed, it has just begun — on the byways of our nation, in our state capitols, in the Congress of the United States, in our courts and in the voter registration booths and polling places of our Democracy.

As I write these words, our NAACP is leading “Justice Summer” marches throughout the South, to conclude with a Washington, DC march on September 11-15 [ naacp.org ].

President Obama has once again called upon the Congress to move forward on our efforts to strengthen the Voting Rights Act — and we will continue that fight until, once again, democracy has prevailed.

We must march — and, even more important, we must assure that every person we know has registered to vote.  Our active and sustained participation in the electoral process is central to our movement for equal treatment in employment, housing and all of the other essential elements of American life.

The President has proclaimed September 22 as National Voter Registration Day, offering his strong encouragement to the League of Women Voters and all of us as we work to assure that every American can exercise our most fundamental civil right.

This is our time, our watch, and our victory to be won.  This is our future to secure, and there is still work to be done.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.