Reflections of a Voting Rights Litigator on the Sixtieth Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Give us the Ballot” Speech

by Bryan L. Sells

May 17, 2017

On May 17, 1957, just a few months after the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and exactly three years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that struck down segregation in public schools, Dr. King gave a major speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  This was not the “I Have a Dream” speech which he delivered on the same spot six and a half years later during the March on Washington.  No, this was Dr. King’s very first address to a national audience, and it came during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, an event organized by A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and others to urge the federal government to step up its efforts to implement the Brown decision.

Dr. King spoke last that day, and his remarks are now known as his “Give Us the Ballot” speech.  Here is the key passage.

Unfortunately, this noble and sublime decision has not gone without opposition. This opposition has often risen to ominous proportions. Many states have risen up in open defiance. The legislative halls of the South ring loud with such words as “interposition” and “nullification.”

But even more, all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. 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.

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.

Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.

Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.

Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a “Southern Manifesto” because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.

Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who [] have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.

Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954.

The speech electrified the crowd of more than 20,000 and established Dr. King’s status as a national leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  But, more importantly, the speech made voting rights a central focus of the national struggle for civil rights.

At the time, fewer than one in four African Americans in the South were registered to vote.  Despite ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which in 1870 prohibited voting discrimination on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” by the middle of the twentieth century most African Americans in the South had been effectively disfranchised by race-neutral but discriminatory laws aimed at preventing them from registering to vote.  These discriminatory laws included literacy tests, comprehension tests, poll taxes, and durational residency requirements.

Dr. King’s “Give Us the Ballot” speech is also noteworthy because it helped to build momentum for federal legislation to protect the right to vote.  The Civil Rights Act of 1957, which Congress passed in September of that year, was the first federal civil rights legislation since 1875.  The Act made it unlawful to intimidate voters in federal elections, and it authorized the Attorney General to enforce that law by seeking an injunction in federal court.  The Civil Rights Act of 1957 also led to the creation of the Civil Rights Division of the the Department of Justice, where I had the privilege of serving our country for five years as a Special Litigation Counsel in the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division.

So “Give Us the Ballot” was an important speech in American history.  Unfortunately, it did not fix the problem of black voter registration in the South.    The Civil Rights Act of 1957 proved ineffectual. So did the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which also focused on voting, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which focused on employment and public accommodations but also contained provisions related to voting rights.     

Despite the tireless and, frankly, heroic efforts of civil rights groups to register African American voters in the early ‘60s, it was not until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that black voter registration in the South finally took off.  President Johnson called the Voting Rights Act, when he signed it, “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom,” and he was right.  By the end of 1967, more than 500,000 new black voters had been added to the rolls in the seven states subject to the most stringent parts of the Act.  And throughout the South, the black voter registration rate jumped from about 29 percent in 1965 to 52 percent in 1967.  Today, the rate of black voter registration is above 65 percent nationally and almost indistinguishable from the rate of white voter registration.

But as I reflect on Dr. King’s “Give Us the Ballot” speech today, with the full benefit of hindsight, and through the lens of my particular experience as a voting-rights litigator, it also strikes me that Dr King’s oratory, beautiful though it was, was almost completely wrong. His predictions —his hopes—for what the ballot would bring remain, in many instances, elusive.

“Give us the ballot,” Dr. King said, “and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy.”  But look at Alabama in 2017, where approximately one quarter of the voting-age population is African American.   There is not a single African American judge on the Alabama Supreme Court, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, or the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals because of continued racial polarization in voting and the way the state structures the elections for those judgeships.

“Give us the ballot,” Dr. King said, “and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights.”  There is no right more basic than the right to life, and yet today we still mourn Jordan Edwards and Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray and Walter Scott and Sandra Bland and Alton Sterling and Philando Castille and far too many other young people of color killed at the hands of the police.  

One thing I’ve learned as a voting-rights litigator is that the ballot is only the beginning.  

The ballot—that is, the right to participate in elections—is undoubtedly important because it signifies full membership in the civic community.  But the right to vote extends beyond the formal right to register and cast a ballot.  

The right to vote in our democracy gets much of its meaning from its power to translate the individual act of casting a ballot into the collective action of electing candidates to represent our shared interests in government decision-making.  “Give us the ballot,” Dr. King said, “and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill.”

What Dr. King apparently did not anticipate when he spoke those words in 1957 was that Southern officials had spent the better part of a century preparing for the day when they could no longer prevent African Americans from casting their ballots.  They had already put in place electoral practices that would dilute the strength of black ballots and prevent black candidates from getting elected once the formal barriers to black voting fell.  

You’ve probably heard of some of those practices.  They include racial gerrymandering.  At-large elections.  Majority-vote requirements.  Numbered-posts.  The full-slate rule.  And others.  These dilutive practices were already common in the South when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and their use quickly exploded in the years that followed.  So the ballot did not immediately translate into the election of representatives of goodwill, as Dr. King had hoped.

The ballot, as it turned out, was only the beginning.

Newly enfranchised black voters challenged those dilutive practices in court, but it wasn’t until 1973 that the Supreme Court held that dilution, like disfranchisement, is unlawful.  In the years following that decision, minority plaintiffs filed case after case challenging dilutive practices throughout the South, and the number of black and brown elected officials finally began to increase.  As a result of this litigation, or the threat of litigation, the number of black elected officials in America more than quadrupled between 1970 and 1992.

I wish I could tell you that those cases had fixed the problem of black voter representation in the South.  That vote dilution no longer exists.  That race no longer determines the outcomes of elections.  But it does.  And not just in the South, either.   Today, black voters, latino voters, Native American voters, and Asian voters in all corners of America remain underrepresented in the halls of government.  Particularly at the lower levels of government, like our cities, towns, and school boards.

I began doing voting rights work in 1997 when I secured a summer internship with the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Atlanta, Georgia.  Since then I’ve spent much of my career challenging those same dilutive practices that minority plaintiffs have fought since the ‘60s, often in the nooks and crannies of America where the light of the Voting Rights Act had yet to shine.  And I’ve seen first-hand how the job of securing what Dr. King called “this sacred right” remains unfinished.

Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, I still believe in the ballot as the greatest tool ever invented for bringing about nonviolent social change.  Dr. King dreamed of the ballot as a powerful tool for racial justice, and I work every day to make that dream a reality by fighting to ensure that all Americans, regardless of their race or color, or the language they speak at home, have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice.

On this day, as I reflect on the meaning of the ballot, I want to share with you one final thing I’ve learned in my work.  Nothing that I can do as a voting-rights litigator can change anything if the people I serve don’t vote.  You see, the ballot gains its real power as a tool for racial justice from the voters who use it.

If you want to help make Dr. King’s dream a reality, I urge you to seek out candidates who understand that America’s long struggle with race remains unfinished and to use your ballot, as Dr. King said, to fill our legislative halls with representatives of goodwill devoted, as he was, to the cause of justice.  

Former DOJ, ACLU Attorney Launches Boutique Civil Rights Law Firm

The Law Office of Bryan L. Sells, LLC to focus on voting rights, election law, and redistricting.

Atlanta, GA – March 7, 2016 – Bryan L. Sells is pleased to announce the launch of The Law Office of Bryan L. Sells, LLC.  Drawing on Sells’ experience in the government and nonprofit sectors, the boutique firm will specialize in voting rights, election law, and redistricting matters.

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, the new firm will represent individual voters, civil rights organizations, political parties, and candidates across the country in complex voting rights litigation.  The firm 

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