Here’s what’s happening in D.C. on the Jan. 6 anniversary

At Williamsburg, a reminder of what we’ve gained, and could yet lose

A plaque along the walking bridge at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va. (Photo by John L. Micek)

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. An appropriately picturesque walking bridge connects the Visitors’ Center at Colonial Williamsburg to the meticulously recreated historic site about a mile away. And every step along it is a step backward into our tangled, jumbled, and often painful history as a nation.

At regularly spaced intervals, plaques set into the concrete remind you that, in the not-too-distant past, there was no television, long-distance travel was onerous and difficult, that, until 1920, women were denied the right to vote; that, until 1865, you knew someone who owned another human being, and that, in 1776, you were still subject to the whims of a king an ocean away.

The return trip across the bridge, as you might expect, is a voyage to where we are now: With religion becoming a matter of personal choice, rather than state mandate. The embryonic United States expanded westward, but at a terrible cost to the native peoples who already occupied the land. President Abraham Lincoln lifted the chains of bondage for millions, but so much work still remained. Public education became an option for all. By the 1930s, Social Security and other programs provided a safety net to those who needed it the most. In the 1950s, a woman named Rosa Parks stood up for what was right by sitting down.

As I walked that bridge for the first time a few days ago, I was struck by the notion that the simple poetry of those bronze plaques reflected the arc of the nation — always moving forward, even if sometimes bumptiously, expanding the rights of our fellow citizens, even if that progress was irregular and always long overdue. To come to Williamsburg is to be reminded of the optimism of the American experiment, and to remember that the work of creating a more perfect union is always ongoing.

And then as I walked some more along the bridge and into the historic area, it occurred to me that, for the first time in my lifetime, there are forces afoot, real and palpable, that are working to turn back the clock on all those hard-won gains, because, it seems, those behind it are afraid of the future, or they don’t wish to surrender their prerogatives to a country that is becoming ever more diverse and pluralistic.

That battle has unspooled in public school classrooms, waged by people who misguidedly want to preserve a very specific version of our national story, one that prioritizes white and privileged voices over those who have been marginalized for too long. But to do that is to defy the reality of history. It’s impossible to tell the full American story without including the voices of its native people, the enslaved and formerly enslaved, upon whose backs the country was painfully brought to life.

That battle has unspooled in our courtrooms, before a U.S. Supreme Court that, as now seems apparent, is perfectly ready to strip bodily autonomy from fully 50 percent of the population. And in the doing of it, turn back the clock a half-century, to a horrifying era where people who can get pregnant went to deadly lengths to assert control over their own futures.

As those brass plaques along the bridge make clear, we were once a nation that celebrated science. One particularly makes note of Thomas Edison helping to bring the nation out of darkness in 1879, by building his first light bulb. Nearly a century-and-a-half on, the president of the United State pleaded with the American people this week to follow basic science and get vaccinated against a virus that has so far killed more than 800,000 of their fellow citizens.

We see it in attacks on voting rights and the legitimacy of our elections.

In Washington, though he lacks the votes to change the filibuster, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he planned to take up a voting rights bill during the first week of January, the New York Times reported. Schumer also threatened rules changes if the chamber’s Republicans continued their resistance. But, as the Times noted, it’s hard to say how far Schumer might go given that two of his fellow Democrats, U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, remain opposed to such changes.

Meanwhile, the myth of the stolen election, and the rise of the far-right, which is extending its reach into local offices with oversight of elections, continues unabated. And a former president continues to spread the fiction that he won the 2020 election, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Worse, he’s been abetted by many of his fellow Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District.

The destructive effect of this sustained attack on the underpinnings of our republic isn’t academic. One expert in foreign civil wars is warning that the United States is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.” Indeed, things have deteriorated so badly over the last five years that the country no longer technically qualifies as a democracy, according to The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, citing research by University of California at San Diego political science professor Barbara F. Walter, who serves on a CIA advisory panel called the Political Instability Task Force.

Instead, the country is now an “anocracy,” which puts it somewhere between a democracy and an autocratic state, according to Walter.

It sounds cliché to say it, but we’re at a tipping point as a nation. And as we head into a new year, with a contentious campaign season ahead, every choice we make as a country in the 12 months to come will reverberate into history.

There’s a final plaque set into the concrete on the return leg to the Visitors’ Center. The question it asks is as simple as it is towering in the challenge it poses: “What difference will you make?”

The answer has never been more important.

John L. Micek is the editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which first published this essay.

State lawmaker: Jim Crow has no place in North Carolina’s constitution

Image: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

NC must remove stain of white supremacy from its governing document

The North Carolina constitution contains an alarming provision from a dark period in our history: a literacy test requirement to keep Black voters from the ballot box.

I am determined to finally repeal it.

In 1899, the North Carolina legislature amended the state constitution with measures to steal and suppress Black political power. The literacy test, one of many tactics, required every person of color who wanted to exercise their freedom to vote to be able to read and write any section of the constitution in English. A “grandfather clause” protected white voters by stating that anyone who had been eligible to vote (or had an eligible ancestor) under 1867 state law was exempted from this test.

Politicians added the literacy test to our state constitution in the immediate aftermath of the 1898 Wilmington massacre, where white supremacists overthrew Black elected officials and murdered hundreds of Black North Carolinians. Lawmakers of the era were determined to preserve white political, social, and economic dominance in North Carolina. Their fingerprints are still on our constitution.

The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests and made North Carolina’s law unenforceable, but we have never managed to remove this stain from our core governing document. In 1970, North Carolinians voted against removing the literacy test from the state Constitution. In 2013 and 2019, bills to allow voters to vote for a literacy test repeal gained traction in the legislature but never passed.

We are reigniting this effort in the North Carolina General Assembly. Change is long overdue.

The General Assembly must give North Carolina voters another chance to repeal the literacy test at the ballot box. My bipartisan bill, House Bill 337, would ask voters whether to repeal the literacy test section of the Constitution on the November 2022 ballot. The bill has overwhelming support from lawmakers of both parties and must remain a top priority this legislative session. It is an insult to Black, brown, and Indigenous North Carolinians to maintain this provision and to defer the matter year after year.

North Carolina is one of few states with a literacy test still enshrined in state law, along with Delaware, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Wyoming. Alabama lawmakers are actively reviewing and redrafting their 1901 Constitution – written with the express intent to establish a white supremacist state – including removing a poll tax provision. As our region and nation grapple with past and present racism in our communities and institutions, North Carolina must not fail to act. We must join our neighbors and signal our commitment to democracy, civil rights, and the freedom to vote for all North Carolinians – no matter what we look like or who we vote for.

In the last year, North Carolina communities took action to remove at least twenty-four Confederate monuments throughout the state, and countless politicians and Fortune 500 companies declared their commitment to protecting Black lives. We should reinforce that commitment by removing the literacy test from the state Constitution. We have had decades to right this wrong. Now is the time.

Representative Terry Brown is the State Representative for House District 92 in Mecklenburg County.

Rev. Barber leads day of action in DC for voting rights protections, promised reforms

Bishop William J. Barber II in the crowd for voting rights rally on Nov. 17, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (photo by LaMonique Hamilton)

Bishop William J. Barber II in the crowd for voting rights rally on Nov. 17, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (photo by LaMonique Hamilton)

‘The right time to do right is right now!’

Hundreds of people marched in Washington on Wednesday, singing songs of struggle and calling for the passage of a voting rights bill by the end of the year. Rev. William Barber II marched alongside other faith leaders, poor and working class Americans and allied elected officials, filling the streets around the White House and demanding an end to voter suppression efforts they see gathering steam around the country.

Numerous organizations joined the Poor People’s Campaign including the League of Women Voters, People for the American Way, Declaration for American Democracy, Black Lives Matter, DC Vote, Democracy Initiative, Drum Majors for Change, and the Future Coalition. Some people traveled from far-away states invoking the names of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other civil rights leaders who fought to protect voting rights over the decades. More than 200 people were arrested in organized civil disobedience actions, including Barber.

“I want the White House to remember that the scripture says, ‘Woe onto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights, and make women and children their prey,” said Barber. “In every battleground state, if just 20% of poor and low-wealth people who have not voted would vote and be organized together, they could determine every election in this country. And that is the sleeping giant that they are literally afraid of.”

Following the defeat of former President Donald Trump, Republican officials in multiple states introduced a slew of restrictive voting laws that follow a similar model. They cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and ramped up ID requirements, cut back early voting, and added other restrictive measures that are particularly burdensome for the working poor. More localized strategies, like limiting the number of polling sites in low-income and minority neighborhoods, have also had a depressing effect including during Wisconsin’s pandemic elections.

The Poor People’s Campaign condemns the obstructive use of the Senate filibuster, which makes it impossible to pass non-budget legislation without a 60-vote supermajority. By relying on the filibuster, Republicans have been able to stonewall voting rights legislation. . Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson backs the use of the filibuster and has continued to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 election. In July, the Poor People’s Campaign issued an open letter to Johnson demanding he change his stance. But it’s not just Republicans voting rights and reform activists are holding responsible. Read more

Republicans torpedo debate on voting rights in dangerous moment for democracy

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When Senate Republicans voted unanimously to block debate on the Freedom to Vote Act on Wednesday, they fulfilled Mitch McConnell’s “hope and anticipation” that not a single GOP senator would break ranks — ensuring that a measure protecting voting rights and secure elections, increasing campaign finance transparency and cracking down on partisan gerrymandering would not come to the floor.

So much for West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin’s promise to get 10 GOP colleagues to support the compromise bill, which he led.

It’s a perilous moment for democracy.

Now Democrats must decide if they are going to push to abolish the filibuster to secure voting rights, or whether they will let Republican state legislatures, which are making an unprecedented push to curtail voting rights, run the table in the 2022 and 2024 elections and for the next 10 years as as they draw new voting districts based on the 2020 census.

The stakes are high.

Molly McGrath, a voting rights attorney, advocate, and organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project told the Wisconsin TV show Up Front’s Mike Gousha on Wednesday that in the absence of federal action, state-level voter suppression bills around the country could determine the outcome of elections for years to come. “It’s almost like death by 1,000 cuts,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of restrictions that are going to have a very, very big impact on people who will be able to cast a ballot, a huge impact on traditionally disenfranchised communities.”

The Brennan Center for Justice recently reported that, in an unprecedented year so far for voting legislation, 19 states have enacted 33 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote.

All of those state laws make it absolutely essential for Congress to act to protect voting rights, McGrath said. “Doing nothing doesn’t keep us in neutral,” she explained. “Doing nothing on the federal level actually takes us backward.” Read more