Elijah Cummings

Even looking beyond the campaign speeches and rallies of this election year, the contrast between the political parties on civil rights has been striking — and, where the Republican candidates and their positions are concerned, alarming. 

Last week, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich suspended their presidential campaigns — virtually assuring that billionaire Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President of the United States.

I was asked for my own view of Mr. Trump during a National Association of Black Journalists conference at Morgan State University last week, and I acknowledged that I consider him to be “dangerous” for our country.

It’s a serious problem, I continued, when the number one candidate of the Republican Party actively works to turn Americans against each other, using language that encourages his supporters to respond to their frustration and anger with violence toward others.

To be fair, before they dropped out of the presidential race, both Senator Cruz and Governor Kasich condemned Mr. Trump’s rabble-rousing.  However, neither adequately addressed the underlying fears, frustrations and economic deprivations that are fueling the growing discontent in America.

To the contrary, the Republican response to the growing inequalities in income and wealth in America has been to push for further tax breaks for powerful corporations and our most wealthy citizens, starve practical job creation policies, and oppose our efforts to better regulate predatory economic behavior by our nation’s economic elites.

In the Congress, the current Republican majority has also been relentless in its attacks on America’s social safety net and our efforts to expand affordable health care to all Americans.

They have refused to moderate the tsunami of big money that is distorting our political system — or even to require that those powerful interests disclose who is funding the attack ads that dominate our television screens.

Perhaps, most dangerous of all to our democratic system, the Republican congressional majority has refused even to allow a vote on bipartisan efforts to restore the Voting Rights Act to full strength.

Meanwhile, their Republican allies in state legislatures where they hold the current majorities have taken full political advantage of a weakened Voting Rights Act through measures that are calculated to limit our participation as American citizens in the choice of who will govern us.

As William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP recently observed, “We again struggle for unfettered access to the ballot, especially for the most vulnerable among us.”

I would have to agree.  Yet, I also remain convinced that the most effective antidote to the reactionary virus that threatens our Republic continues to be enlightened Americans who, in Dr. King’s empowering vision, “exercise the full measure of our citizenship.”

Where voter id laws make it more difficult for our elderly, young, and least affluent neighbors to vote, we must reach out and help them obtain the identification they need.

Where cynical purges of the voting rolls (as in Ohio) seek to deprive those in our communities of their most fundamental civil right, we must help each other to correct those errors.

Where, like North Carolina, Republican dominated election boards have reduced the number of polling places — or where, like Wisconsin, Republican legislators have made it more difficult for students to register and vote — an engaged citizenry, nevertheless, has the power to make democracy work as it should.

In 2016, this is our test, the challenge not only for those of us who are Americans of Color but for us all, whatever may be our racial background.

Yet, notwithstanding the obstacles that we now face, I remain confident in our ability to prevail — and here is why.

As I have observed in the past, in 2012, African American voters accounted for President Obama’s entire margin of victory in seven states: Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.  If we roll up our sleeves and embrace our legacy as citizens during the next six months, so can it be in 2016.

I should also note that these same seven states (along with Illinois, Wisconsin and North Carolina) will hold elections in November in which we have the ability to restore the United States Senate as the truly deliberative governing body that our Constitution envisions.

Notwithstanding the efforts to suppress our votes by Republican legislators, Republicans in the Congress and a slim 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court, here is the truth.

Acting in coalition with our progressive allies, active participation by Americans of Color in voter registration drives, voter-turnout campaigns and Election Day mobilization will determine the direction of the Presidency, the Congress and the Supreme Court of the United States for years to come.

We must rise to the challenge because we cannot afford to fail. We are fighting for our future and for the generations of Americans yet to be born.

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