The four living Minnesota legislators serving in 1965 in the U.S. House and Senate and civil rights icon, Dr. Josie Johnson, were recently honored for their work in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Minnesota’s bipartisan delegation of eight representatives and two senators voted unanimously in favor of the then bill’s passage. Honored along with Johnson were former vice president, Walter Mondale – then a junior senator; former Minnesota governor Al Quie – then a member of the House; former House member and past mayor of Minneapolis Donald Fraser; and former representative Alec Olson. The awards came from Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon.
Prior to the act’s passage, many states – especially states in the South – adopted and enforced practices such as literacy tests, poll taxes and other methods to deny African-American citizens the right to vote. And while Congress voted in 2006 to make the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 permanent, those being honored and Simon said voting rights continue to come under attack.
“Denial of voting rights still exists,” said Johnson, who was working as early as a teen to register voters in a segregated Texas. “It’s still hard for many American citizens to acknowledge us (African-Americans) as full citizens. We have to keep fighting and we have to remember those who fought and died for this right.”
Mondale, who became vice president under President Jimmy Carter, referred to the times before the 1965 passage as a dark chapter in America’s history.
“There had been a long, dismal, pathetic history of denying Blacks and other minorities access to democracy,” said Mondale, who placed his vote in favor of passage at the top of his achievements in government. “(Passage of the Voting Rights Act) changed the country because it empowered all citizens.”
As did Johnson, Mondale also cautioned that voting rights are still under attack.
“I think we’ve been moving backwards in a dramatic, deeply depressing way,” said Mondale pointing to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder where Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was ruled unconstitutional. Section 4(b), was considered the teeth for Section 5, which requires certain states and local governments obtain federal preclearance before making changes to voting practices. Following the Shelby ruling several states and counties enacted more restrictive rules for voting such as requiring voters to show state-issued photo identification cards in order to vote.
“It’s like the old days before civil rights,” said Mondale. “Now there’s a Southernized Republican Party and these states are trying anything to stop people from voting. They’re back to their old tricks.”
Of significance with the Minnesota delegation in 1965 was that it was both Democratic and Republican, yet all voted in favor of removing restrictive voting practices that had been law in many parts of the United States.
“We wouldn’t have passed (the Voting Rights Act of 1965) without the Republicans,” said Mondale, a Democrat. “We had a voting block of Democrats in the South who always voted wrong (against extending voting rights to all).”
Simon cautioned citizens to not become comfortable when it comes to voting rights.
“We here in this room have different political positions and perspectives on some election issues, that’s fine, but surely we can agree that we shouldn’t sit still when it comes to the right to vote in Minnesota and America,” said Simon. “My hope is when we leave this room we remain restless in our pursuit of voting rights for all Americans.”