Pioneer Press: As Voting Rights Act anniversary nears, 5 honored for their efforts to pass it
By Sarah Horner, 7/31/15
Josie Johnson stood out in the lineup of dignitaries honored on stage Thursday at the Landmark Center to mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
Sitting alongside the four surviving members of the Minnesota congressional delegation who helped pass it, she was the only African-American in the group, the only woman and the only honoree who did not vote on the historic 1965 federal legislation that lifted the restrictions impeding African-Americans from their constitutional right to vote.
Her contributions started much earlier, when the now 84-year-old was a teenager in Texas. She went door-knocking with her father to stop poll taxes, one of the many strategies of the day aimed at keeping African-Americans away from the ballot boxes.
Johnson went on to become a civil rights leader in Minnesota after she moved here, leading residents to Mississippi in the 1960s to witness the atrocities endured by southern blacks. She later became the director of the Minneapolis Urban League and the first African-American to serve on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents.
The slight woman brought the crowd at the historic St. Paul building to its feet when she accepted the first of the five medallions presented by Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon. The four others went to former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Minnesota Gov. Al Quie, former Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser and former U.S. Rep. Alec Olson. The four men are the surviving members of Minnesota’s 10-person congressional delegation who voted unanimously in support of the iconic act signed in to law Aug. 6, 1965.
“I feel deeply honored to be here among these heroes as we remember, celebrate and recommit our vows to protect the right of voting for African-Americans and all citizens of America,” Johnson said during the ceremony. She recalled her joy when then-President Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law and heartache when, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key components.
“I remember my sadness to know that the rights of African-Americans are still being denied. I share these memories because I need you to continue to struggle … stay alert, and protect the rights so many people, young and old, fought and died for. … Keep our commitment to justice. … Not just this moment, but every day, in every way.”
All of the honorees offered remarks during the hour-and-a-half-long ceremony in downtown St. Paul, held one week before the Voting Rights Act’s 50th birthday. It opened with portions of the famous speech the then-president made in March of 1965, when he called on the country to prepare to pass the legislation in the coming months.
Simon commented on the vigor Minnesota’s representatives undertook that charge. Along with the four honored Thursday, former Sen. Eugene McCarthy and former Reps. John Blatnik, Joe Karth, Odin Langen, Clark MacGregor and Ancher Nelsen also voted to pass the act.
“The members of our delegation disagreed sharply on many prominent issues of the day — Vietnam, Medicare, immigration. But when the roll was called on the Voting Rights Act, Minnesota’s delegation spoke with one voice,” Simon said.
Mondale said the vote was the most significant of his time as a senator. He also recalled the president’s historic speech preceding it.
“We all sprang to our feet and there was an applause like I have never heard before or since … because we knew that we were going to get it done,” Mondale said. “Within a few years, voter participation in the south equaled or surpassed the white vote … an astounding victory for justice in America.”
While acknowledging all there is to celebrate about that important day, many of the honorees also talked about the steps back voting rights have taken in recent years, including the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, a decision Mondale said “gutted” the Voting Rights Act.
The court struck down the section of the law used to determine which communities and states are subject to continued federal oversight. Chief Justice John Roberts said that the formula was outdated and unworkable.
Mondale noted that states across the south have moved to cut back voter registration and limit the number of voting days.
“So we have a lot to feel proud of,” he said. “(But) in a real sense … we are right back on our heels again having to fight for justice.”
Quie echoed those comments, saying he told his Republican colleagues at the time that a vote against the act would be “un-American and un-Christian.”
“It’s up to parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, to talk about this at the dinner table, because injustice and the efforts to do unjust things are not dead,” Quie said.
Fraser in his remarks thanked all the Minnesotans who fought for civil rights back in the 1960s, including the many he was called upon to help out of legal jams because of their unwavering commitment to the cause.
Olson, who spoke last, encouraged people to exercise their right to vote.
“A small majority is calling the shots. They wouldn’t get by with that if we all voted,” Olson said. “Please remember … if we all voted, all of us, we wouldn’t have that minority driving home their causes. We could move this great nation ahead.”
Thursday’s ceremony was a kickoff event for Simon’s office as he and a coalition representing some 50 organizations prepare to visit several schools in the fall to talk about the importance of voting rights.
Another event will be held Thursday at Harrison Neighborhood Association in Minneapolis to mark the actual 50th anniversary of passage of the Voting Rights Act.