Race Matters

Black Americans died for voting rights in Selma; we can't be complacent about ours

Fifty years ago Dr Martin Luther King Jr led a movement demanding voting rights for African Americans, marching from Selma, in Alabama, to the state capital Montgomery. In the week that Selma, a film depicting the movement is released, news that black and minority ethnic (BME) people could fall off the electoral register in the UK in droves cannot be ignored.

The fight for voting rights that began in early 1965 followed on from King being awarded the Nobel Peace prize at the end of 1964. Runnymede supported a 50th anniversary event (in December 2014) commemorating Dr King’s speech in St Paul’s Cathedral when he stopped on his way to collect the Nobel Peace Prize.

Universal struggles and common humanity

Reading this speech and indeed his Nobel lecture, King’s focus on the universality of humankind, but also the failure to recognise our common humanity, reveals his global vision. While the extent and brutality of racism in 1960s Alabama – 34 people lost their lives in the fight for voting rights – may not have been matched in London or Oslo, neither were black people truly equal citizens in Europe or indeed in Africa at the time, while King also notes the failure to treat Asian, African and other peoples justly too.

Yet as Selma shows, King also had a clear focus on what practically could and should change to make his vision a reality, and explicitly focused on influencing US President Lyndon B Johnson as he felt this would have the biggest effect on African American dignity. President Johnson not only signed the Voting Rights Act early in 1965, but also shocked activists and their opponents when he affirmed the language of the civil rights movement in doing so: ‘Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.’

But despite the progress made since Selma, the evidence shows that in the US – as in the UK – black people are still in danger of losing out on the access to vote.

BME people more likely to fall off the UK voting register

An initial assessment of proposed changes to the electoral roll, the government accepted that ethnic minorities would be more likely fall off the register, with the Electroal Commission suggesting ethnic minorities would be disproportionately affected by an overall drop from 92% to around 60-65%.  For the 2015 UK General Election the change to voting registration will not have a direct effect, as the electoral roll is based on previous rolls. However it is worth noting that as many as 20% of BME people (compared to 7% of white people) are already not registered even before these changes have been implemented.

Group % not registered
White 7%
Pakistani 15%
Black Caribbean 16%
Bangladeshi 17%
Indian 18%
Mixed 22%
Black African 28%

Data: Ethnic Minority boost to British Election Study (EMBES) 2010.

Beyond 2015 is the concern, when the full-scale roll out of individual electoral registration will require local authorities to do more actively to ensure people can vote.

Shockingly, the government offers no argument for this disproportionate effect nor do they offer any mitigating policies to address it. If a foreign government were to adapt a similar change that affected people who strongly voted against that government (with 68% of BME voters supporting Labour in 2010), the Foreign Office would be voicing concerns about a sham democracy.

One positive change in the final bill for ethnic minority voters was to de-link individual electoral registration from boundary changes. If boundaries are drawn only to include registered voters as electors, that will increase constituency sizes where BME are more likely to live, diluting their voting power.  However, there are still significant risks that BME people could be disenfranchised in the next (post-2015) election, as there are still no positive measures in place to improve registration rates.

Selma is a reminder to guard and take advantage of our hard-won voting rights

Voting rights for ethnic minorities in Britain today are vastly more secure than those in Alabama in the 1960s. Yet there isn’t enough awareness of the effects of these changes to registration, nor is government doing enough to explain these or ensure local electoral registration officers effectively reach ethnic minority electors.. To mitigate those effects, people will need further information and support to ensure they are registered, particularly those from Commonwealth countries (and the Republic of Ireland) who often don’t realise they are entitled to vote – the single biggest reason why ethnic minorities are under-registered (and who some senior political leaders have suggested should lose their votes).

Two other groups that will need further support are young people (previously registered by their parent, and disproportionately likely to be ethnic minorities), and women who may never have registered before due to their male ‘head of household’ registering for them –1 in 6 ethnic minority women in 2010 indicated someone else filled in the household registration form.

The case of Jim Crow laws and practices shows that formal rights need citizens’ empowerment and practical action by local democratic institutions to be realised. As Selma highlights, we also need to focus on practical policies and measures that hinder or promote abstract rights. If even the right to vote – a right without which democracy can have no legitimacy – can be so atrophied, Selma shows how citizens can instead regain their rights and improve the quality of our democracy.

The stakes in the UK may be lower, but the evidence suggests that central and local government are still not doing enough to ensure that formal rights for BME people are a reality, denying them their legitimate political voice, and damaging the nature of democracy for everyone.

Watching Selma reminds us of the struggles and sacrifices people made to secure the vote, and Runnymede hopes that it inspires young people in particular to vote in 2015, and to challenge Britain’s leaders to make further progress towards racial equality.




PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the --

NARRATOR: Eight days after Bloody Sunday, four days after Reeb's death, the President asked for a comprehensive Voting Rights bill and astonished the nation by using the words of the movement.

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

JOSEPH SMITHERMAN: Lyndon Johnson came on, the late President, and said, "We shall overcome." And it was just like you'd stuck a dagger in your heart or something like that. I mean, you know, what's this guy doing? And, you know, you had respect for your ... (inaudible) we were patriotic, but it just destroyed everything you'd been allegedly fighting for.

T. VIVIAN: We were all sitting around together, and Martin was sitting in a chair looking toward the TV set. And when LBJ said, "And we shall overcome," we all cheered and I looked over toward Martin, and Martin was very quietly sitting in the chair and a tear ran down his cheek. It was a victory like none other. It was an affirmation of the movement.
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