Sixty-Five Years After ‘Give Us the Ballot’

On May 17, 1957, on the third anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, national civil rights leaders gathered with thousands of people in Washington, D.C., for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom to draw attention to ongoing southern resistance to Brown. While many speeches that day encouraged the federal government to continue its work to implement Brown and fulfill the promise of that landmark ruling, the final speaker — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — focused his remarks on the ballot box.

In what became known as his “Give Us the Ballot” address, Dr. King positioned voting rights at the center of the struggle for civil rights — a message that continues to resonate powerfully today.

“The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition,” Dr. King said that day. “And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote.”

The prayer pilgrimage was held just months before President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, our coalition’s first legislative achievement and a crucial law that established a Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Today, that division is led by civil rights lawyer Kristen Clarke, who — since her confirmation less than a year ago — has filed several voting rights lawsuits, including against Georgia’s Senate Bill 202, Texas’s Senate Bill 1, Texas’s statewide redistricting plans, and Galveston County, Texas’s county redistricting plan.

These lawsuits to protect voting rights are critically important, especially in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 and Brnovich v. DNC in 2021 — Supreme Court rulings that severely undermined the power of the Voting Rights Act.

Sixty-five years after Dr. King’s powerful demand for the ballot, as states across the nation propose and pass anti-voting rights measures, advocates continue to call for federal legislation to repair the Supreme Court’s damage to the Voting Rights Act and to help build a democracy that works for everyone. And the importance of this federal action extends beyond the ballot box — because without a functional democracy in which everyone is included, heard, and represented, we can’t make real progress on each and every other important civil and human rights issue.

That reality is painfully clear in states like Mississippi, where the voices of people who respect the progress we’ve made on civil and constitutional rights have been silenced by virtue of discriminatory voting laws. It’s no coincidence that Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that will almost certainly overturn Roe v. Wade next month, originated in Mississippi. Mississippi has the highest percentage of Black residents in the nation, yet modern-day efforts to disenfranchise Black voters and other marginalized communities in the state have led to a state legislature that is dramatically out of step with the will of the people.

Nationwide efforts to restrict abortion access are taking place alongside vicious attempts to erase trans children and deny them access to life-saving health care. Before a federal judge partially blocked it last Friday, for example, a felony ban on gender-affirming care took effect in Alabama, another state that is notorious for restricting the vote. In state after state, lawmakers are pushing dangerous bills that will harm trans people, often trans youth in particular, and deny them their fundamental civil and human rights.

Just as Dr. King recognized in his iconic speech, the freedom to vote is inextricably connected to our ability to beat back regressive policies like those targeting abortion access and the LGBTQ community — which harm people of color, women, and people with low incomes. Anti-freedom leaders know the only way they can stay in power is by taking it away from all of us. And some of those same leaders are also spewing rhetoric that fuels hate, division, and violent exclusion. We’re seeing the tragic consequences of that today.

These coordinated attacks require an urgent response. Voting rights are fundamental because they secure all other rights, so it remains a core priority of the civil rights community for federal lawmakers to take up and pass legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act and to safeguard our elections.

In the absence of state lawmakers who are willing to protect basic rights, we also need federal courts to protect the rights of LGBTQ people and their access to health care, in addition to abortion access. And as Dr. King said in his speech, “Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy.” Crucially, we need senators to confirm federal judges, in every corner of the nation, who are committed to civil and human rights and who will respect the rights of all.

Sixty-five years ago, Dr. King said that “Each of us must keep faith in the future. Let us not despair.” It’s up to all of us to keep the faith and continue fighting for the nation we all deserve — one where access to the ballot, to health care, and to basic human dignity are equally available to everyone.