It’s been said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s why I often share my story of getting involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s with young people.
I was working at Beth Israel Hospital in New York City and active in my union when my colleague encouraged me to join the fight. As a young Jamaican immigrant, I was inspired by activists in the movement which was very different from the fight for civil rights in the Caribbean. I was also motivated by the racial discrimination I experienced when I first came to work at the hospital. I felt morally compelled to join this fight to have more equality and a voice in our democracy.
A lot has changed since the 60s, but Black, brown, Asian Pacific Islander and Indigenous people are still fighting for the right to vote. So what happens when you remember the past and still see history repeating itself?
This is the question on the minds of many SEIU retirees as we continue standing on the frontlines of the fight for voting rights alongside current SEIU members and worker leaders in the Fight for $15.
Since November 2020, Republican lawmakers in Georgia, Texas, Arizona and other states have introduced or passed over 400 bills that limit who can vote, and how. These bills are deeply rooted in racism, and are trying to take our country back to the days of Jim Crow when those days should only be kept in the history books. We cannot let the work of my generation be undone by these self-interested politicians so I’m calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) and Freedom to Vote Act. Lawmakers must also end the filibuster that Senate Republicans have been using to create roadblocks for these critical bills that would make it harder for self-interested politicians to silence our voices.
If passed, the Freedom to Vote Act would help protect communities of color from racial gerrymandering. The VRAA would require states to get clearance from the Dept. of Justice (DOJ) before changing voting laws which was a key part of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965.
When I think about this new fight for voting rights, I can’t help but remember my days of marching alongside Rev. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King and Rev. Jesse Jackson in NYC, attending the first March on Washington with my union family and helping bring about change for future generations all while I was in my 20s. Today, I feel ashamed to even know we are still fighting the same battles.
However, I find comfort in knowing that my union family are not letting the same politicians trying to make it harder for working people to organize keep us from having a voice on the job in our democracy. SEIU members, like Carmen Salzaar of Texas and retirees like Gwyn Harshaw of California, are fighting back.
Carmen, a janitor in Houston, wasn’t able to vote last year but she still committed herself to helping get out the vote in her community. Gwyn, a member of the SEIU Union Forever Retiree Workgroup, isn’t letting retirement stop her from getting out the vote either. When the voices of seniors living in West Fresno, including her mother, were threatened with the closure of a vital polling location in 2018, Gwyn and her SEIU Local 521 family fought back. They attended council meetings, shared stories with county supervisors on their lunch breaks and delivered petitions to elected officials. Those efforts to prevent the polling location closure paid off, but the Local 521 members didn’t stop there. They continued to keep local elected officials who stand with working people in office.
Carmen and Gwyn’s stories give me hope, but more has to be done to ensure future generations don’t have to continue to fight for voting rights. Now more than ever, we need Congress to take bold action so every eligible voter has a voice in our democracy. That’s the only way we can stop Jim Crow 2.0 and build a mult-racial democracy where every family can thrive no matter where they’re from, what they look like or what they do for a living.
A lot of the people who were on the frontlines with me in the 1960s are dying now. I am ashamed to go to their graves and say we are right back where we started from when it comes to voting rights. However, that’s the direction our country is headed in if we don’t take action now. It’s time to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and Freedom to Vote Act.
Yvonne Richardson is an 1199 SEIU retiree member. She lives in Florida.