The term “illegitimate children” is not used very often any more, but at one time, it was used to describe children born to parents who were not married. These children did not enjoy the same legal rights as children who were born to married parents. In addition to not having the same legal rights, these children were often subjected to social discrimination. They were not accepted in certain social circles, and some churches would not even baptize or christen them.
On this the 50th Anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), we, the African American citizens of the United States are feeling like “illegitimate children”. We are asking why, after all these years, you do not want to accept us as your children. Like “illegitimate children” we did not ask to be brought here, but like them, we have suffered just because society has placed an X on our foreheads, labeling us as less than.
We have done everything to win your love and acceptance. We worked your land, built your landmarks, raised your children and followed your rules, but you still do not want to give us the same rights as your other children. There have been periods when it seemed like you were going to accept us. You changed the laws to make us “legitimate”, but you allowed the laws to be ignored. Discrimination against us was no longer de jure, but de facto, as we suffered discrimination in almost every aspect of our existence.
Fifty years ago, we celebrated when President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After years of discriminatory laws and practices, it seemed like this legislation would accomplish what the 15th Amendment and various civil rights laws had not been able to achieve. Even though many African Americans registered and voted during Reconstruction, and African Americans were elected to political office at the local, state and national levels, in 1965, no one was thinking that Post-Reconstruction history would repeat itself. They were not thinking that less than 50 years later a Supreme Court decision—Shelby v. Holder—would gut the VRA and states would rush to pass legislation that would disenfranchise many African Americans.
The right to vote is one of the fundamental tenets of democracy. We cannot understand people who profess to believe in democracy but work to deny this right to African American citizens. You continue to hide behind such code words as reducing fraud. We, your black children, say that we are concerned about the fraud you have perpetrated on us–The fraud of pretending that you want us to have the right to vote while continuing to place roadblocks to prevent us from voting.
On this the 50th Anniversary of the VRA, we, your black children, your black sisters and brothers, your black grandchildren are emphatically stating that we are here, and we are not going away. We are not going to accept “illegitimate” status because we have invested as much or more into building this country into the power that it is as you have. We are asking the Members of Congress to come together across party lines (as the Congress did 50 years ago) and pass a voting rights act that will once and for all let the world know that you have removed the “illegitimate” stigma from your black children.