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Shoes or Poll Tax? AFL-CIO Vows to Revive Protections for Voters

From Arlene Holt Baker, who was elected AFL-CIO vice president in 2007, becoming the first African American to be elected to one of the federation’s three highest offices and the highest-ranking African American woman in the union movement:

Yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote is shameful and a major setback to democracy.

Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and I believe as he did that the “arc of the moral universe . . . bends toward justice.” But yesterday’s decision twists that bend in the wrong direction.

When I was a young girl growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, my mother could not buy me a new pair of shoes because she had to pay her poll tax. She was a full-time domestic worker and my father was a laborer and, like many hardworking families during that time, my parents had to make those kinds of hard decisions. And she chose to exercise her right to vote.

She knew that the right to vote is essential in the struggle toward justice: It is the cornerstone of American democracy, it provides voice to the voiceless, it provides an opportunity to access and exercise power that can counter economic, social, gender and racial inequalities.

Like so many other working people of their time, my parents were resilient. They experienced the dehumanizing barriers to justice — but they believed that with time and struggle those barriers would fall.

And they did. When Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, barriers fell. In 2006, when Congress reauthorized the act by sweeping majorities in both parties, barriers fell.

Yesterday, we have gone backward. The decision has placed a stamp of approval on barriers to justice.

But like my parents, we are resilient. We won’t give up. In fact, we are more mobilized than ever to ensure the right to vote for all people and equal access to the polls. As many states have moved to suppress the right to vote for people of color, poor people and young people, 44 states this year proposed legislation to strengthen voting rights and seven states successfully passed measures that would do just that. And members of Congress committed to democracy are pledging to revive protections against persistent voting rights attacks.

America’s working families will continue the fight for social and economic justice. And we’ll do that by ensuring every single person has equal access to the ballot box.

We call on Congress to act forcefully and expeditiously in a bipartisan manner to ensure that every voter remains protected.

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