Civil rights leaders' words have meaning today

Last modified: Tuesday, May 22, 2012
How inspiring that U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Ruby Sales pulled no punches in warning of a rollback in the civil rights they fought to obtain. How fitting that they did so in a state whose legislature seeks to do just that.

As the Monitor reported on May 19, the New Hampshire Supreme Court Society, a private organization, honored Lewis and Jonathan Daniels each with a Life and Liberty Award, in recognition of their dedication to civil rights. As is well-known in New Hampshire, Daniels died when he took the bullet shot at Sales, a black teenager and fellow civil rights activist. Sales, now in her 60s, spoke at the event, as did Lewis. Growing up in the segregated South, they have a historical perspective that should inform what we do today. We in the audience were on our feet after each speech.

The question and challenge now is where New Hampshire will stand. The Monitor did not report that the day before his address at the state Supreme Court, Lewis had introduced the Voter Empowerment Act in Congress. This bill would make it easier for Americans to vote in federal elections. Almost one out of four eligible Americans is not registered to vote. Among other initiatives, the bill would register consenting citizens automatically at public offices like the Division of Motor Vehicles, armed forces recruitment offices, the Social Security Administration, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. It would provide for online registration, guarantee 15 days of early voting before Election Day, allow same-day registration, and enhance access for voters with disabilities.

To protect voting rights, its procedures include measures to prohibit interference with voter registration and to promote accuracy, integrity and security in elections. It stands in sharp contrast to a Republican attempt on May 16 to remove all federal funding for U.S. Department of Justice enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, not to mention the 'voter ID' bill pending in the New Hampshire Legislature aimed at restricting access to the polls.

As for our own federal legislators, I searched for the term 'voter empowerment' on the websites for Reps. Charlie Bass and Frank Guinta. On Bass's website, the succinct response was: '0 results.' Ditto Guinta's website, which returned 'Your search yielded no results,' albeit with the helpful tip to 'check if your spelling is correct.'

How hopeful it would be if the members of our congressional delegation would add their names as sponsors of this legislation. Shouldn't we expect our appointed representatives, both federal and state, to appreciate that history teaches us that restrictions on voting are tied to discrimination on the basis of race, class, gender and disability, and that morality teaches us that voting rights is a nonpartisan issue?

The warning about history repeating itself may be hackneyed but is nonetheless true. Sadly, the lessons of the civil rights movement can be forgotten even as we venerate its heroes. To truly honor people like Lewis and Daniels, we must esteem what they have to say now, not only what they did 40 years ago.

(Sheila Zakre is a lawyer who lives in Concord.)