Last weekend, many leaders gathered in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the violent police crackdown on African American community members who were marching from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote. The televised police violence captured the attention of the nation and ultimately led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). But today, thanks to a small handful of wealthy elites, we must redouble our efforts to maintain our civil rights — as well as protect our environment and public health.
Voting rights under attack 50 years later
The same big corporate interests that are behind the legislative push to deregulate our environmental laws and prevent any meaningful action to protect our planet are the same ones pushing to restrict access to the ballot, effectively rolling back 50 years of civil rights gains. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), made up of corporations including Koch Industries and ExxonMobil, lobbies for reactionary state legislation around the nation like backing restrictions on voting including voter ID laws. It is no wonder that these powerful interests are working to restrict the vote – their agenda is unpopular and they can only continue to push their regressive policies by preventing popular democracy from flourishing.
The VRA was the ultimate outcome of effective organizing. It was used to strike down many onerous, discriminatory, and oppressive laws that disenfranchised people including poll taxes, literacy tests, inequitable redistricting plans, voter ID laws and other unfair measures that restricted or otherwise interfered with the right to vote.
In 2013, however, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, ushering in a new era of legislation restricting the right to vote. From Texas to Wisconsin and Alabama to Pennsylvania (and elsewhere) conservative state legislatures, at the behest of ALEC, have moved to restrict the right to vote.
Another powerful grassroots movement: fighting fracking
We can see the impact of voting rights and participatory democracy through the environmental work we are engaged in – and the powerful movement rising up over the past decade to stop hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in our rural communities is a great example. New powerful technologies have enabled the oil and gas industry to drill deep into previously hard-to-reach sources of gas, but the cost of the new technique is high: some people who live near fracking sites have become seriously ill from contaminated air and water. Others can light their tap on fire due to the amount of methane in their water. What’s worse, the oil and gas industry isn’t required to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process, but many are known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. Communities with fracking have seen declines in property values, increases in crime and losses in local tourism and agriculture.
The costs of the new hydraulic fracturing technique are so high that communities from New York to California have risen up to say no to fracking. More than 450 communities have successfully passed measures taking action against the destructive practice. And thanks to strong grassroots organizing, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo moved to ban fracking last December. Everywhere the governor went, he was met by people urging him to keep fracking out of the state. Countless protests, call-in days, petition gathering events and other grassroots pressure finally tipped the scales in democracy’s favor.
We must keep organizing to shore up progressive wins
We must keep up the pressure—from organizing to stop fossil fuels development in favor of developing cleaner energy technologies, to upholding and advancing civil rights gained at Selma.
As we reflect on the 50th anniversary commemoration events, it is critical that we push for a legislative restoration of the Voting Rights Act. And, it is important for all of us in the environmental and broader progressive movement to actively support these efforts, while at the same time working at the local, state and national level to insure that our basic rights are upheld.
The environmental and civil rights movements, beyond being ultimately progressive in nature, have common cause. We know that communities of color and the poor are disproportionately impacted by environmentally polluting industries, which are driven by large corporate interests. From fracking operations that impact communities in California’s central valley and Pennsylvania’s rural communities, to water privatization that affects people living in large urban areas like Detroit, to factory farms that pollute rural communities from New Mexico, to Iowa and North Carolina, the communities that are most likely to be impacted by environmental pollution are also most likely to be affected by legislative efforts to restrict the vote. Environmental rights and civil rights go hand in hand and communities that are impacted by environmental harms need to be empowered to protect themselves through free and clear access to the ballot.
As we are battling to restore our planet, we need to stand together as a broad based progressive movement to restore our democracy and the right of everyone to fully participate in it. The acts of the protestors of the civil rights movement took great courage. Again, we need acts of great courage to sustain our democracy.
Food & Watch is proud to have stood against the regressive efforts of ALEC as members of the Democracy Initiative, a broad coalition advocating for reforms to get money out of politics and expand the right to vote. We are proud to have stood with the NAACP’s Rev. Barber and the Moral Monday movement and protests in North Carolina. And, we are proud to stand with communities suffering from environmental pollution across the country. But we must do more and we must do more together.
We live in a time where our environment and our democracy is threatened by a cabal of massive corporations led by people that are willing to destroy our communities in order to extract every last bit of profit. We need the maximum engagement and participation of all to push back against these forces.
Let’s reflect on the courage and achievement of the brave marchers for justice in Selma 50 years ago and then recommit to championing meaningful legislation to advance voting rights, restore our democracy and protect our environment for all people and future generations.