"[Minnesota] is perhaps the only state in the country that is dramatizing in a massive way its concern for the people in the South."
So said civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis at a rally in St. Paul on Aug. 2, 1965. Fifty years ago this coming Sunday, the then-25-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had just concluded a three-day tour of the state, and he was impressed. His praise for Minnesota would soon be justified.
The country was just days away from the historic signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation in our nation's history.
While we celebrate that great American achievement this summer, we should also use the occasion to educate, motivate and activate Minnesotans around issues of voting and democracy.
Minnesota's remarkable role in the Voting Rights Act provides such an opportunity and inspiration.
As many Minnesotans remember, before the Voting Rights Act was enacted, several states openly and legally suppressed the votes of African-Americans and other communities of color. They used poll taxes and literacy tests — not to mention intimidation and brute force — to deny certain citizens the right to register to vote.
The Voting Rights Act made those laws and tactics illegal, giving millions of Americans a voice — by ensuring that they could exercise their right to vote.
Like most landmark legislation, the Voting Rights Act was controversial at the time. Some resented the prospect of federal involvement in state affairs, while others had uglier motives. The debate over the bill was sometimes bitter.
Thankfully, Minnesotans did what they do best: they found common ground.
Both major political parties in Minnesota came together around voting rights for all Americans. The DFL Party embraced civil rights in its platform and through its elected representatives. The chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota traveled to Selma, Ala., in March 1965, and upon his return to Minnesota urged Republicans to support federal legislation to wipe away discriminatory voting laws.
That common purpose reached Washington, D.C. In 1965, Minnesota's congressional delegation was very divided politically and 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.
All of our voting members — senators and representatives, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives — voted to affirm the fundamental right to vote for all Americans.
We were one of the proud states that voted unanimously for the Voting Rights Act.
Literacy tests. Poll taxes. "Character" tests.
Gone. Forever. And good riddance.
Yet 50 years later, barriers still remain.
Although Minnesota is consistently among the top states in voter turnout, there is always more work to do to ensure that Minnesotans can and will choose to exercise their right to vote.
Barriers to voting are different now, but they persist. It's up to all of us to break down those barriers and once again speak with one voice on behalf of all Minnesotans. How can we do this?
By getting good habits started early among young voters, by modernizing our election system to provide even more freedom and flexibility for voters, and by opening doors for Minnesotans who are currently shut out of the voting system.
Mainly, we can't be complacent about voting rights — which brings to mind another compelling Minnesota episode connected to the Voting Rights Act.
In 1965, U.S. Rep. John Blatnik, who represented Minnesota's Eighth District, responded to a constituent from Duluth who wrote to him in favor of a voting-rights bill.
In confirming his own support for the Voting Rights Act, Blatnik wrote: "We in Congress are charged with the responsibility of [e]nsuring our citizens the privilege of voting. Please know that I will be restless until this responsibility is fully discharged."
That word, "restless," is simple and fitting. It's a call to action, even now. Especially now.
As we take time to honor the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we should all be restless in the pursuit of voting access, election integrity and a stronger democracy.
Steve Simon is Minnesota's secretary of state.