On May 17, 1957, exactly three years after the issuance of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, roughly 20,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to urge the federal government to do more to implement the ruling . Martin Luther King Jr., then only 28 years-old, gave the final speech of the day. Today, we know it as the “Give Us the Ballot” speech. Why was King talking about the ballot instead of the quality and racial composition of the schools? I’ll let him explain:

“Unfortunately, this noble and sublime [Supreme Court] 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. (Yes)

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

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, we rightfully note how much progress we’ve made in this country, but we cannot forget that the Department of Justice recently had to “nullify” a South Carolina law because it would disproportionately disenfranchise black voters. Since the 2011 legislative year began, 34 Republican state legislatures have introduced bills designed to deny the vote to people who cannot produce specific types of state issued ID. If all of these bills passed, roughly 21 million voters would lose their right to vote. The authors of these bills claim that they are trying to protect the integrity of our elections, but they’re lying. They are using the fear of a virtually nonexistent problem, voter fraud, to purposively disenfranchise blacks, Latinos, students, and the elderly poor. They’re doing this for purely partisan advantage. A vote that is wrongly denied distorts an election equally to a vote wrongly cast, yet the Republicans have introduced laws to deny 21 million citizens their vote in order to prevent “a handful of substantiated cases of individual ineligible voters attempting to defraud the election system.” As the Brennan Center for Justice explains, there’s a good reason that intentional voter fraud is exceedingly rare:

In part, this is because fraud by individual voters is a singularly foolish and ineffective way to attempt to win an election. Each act of voter fraud in connection with a federal election risks five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, in addition to any state penalties. In return, it yields at most one incremental vote. That single extra vote is simply not worth the price.

This push to lower turnout and to lower it among Democratic constituencies, is a perpetuation of some of the worst and most shameful elements of our common history.

During Dr. King’s speech, he called for leadership from the federal government, the moderate Southerners, and the black community. He also called for leadership from liberals, by whom he meant “Northern white” liberals.

…there is need for strong leadership…from the white northern liberals. There is a dire need today for a liberalism which is truly liberal. What we are witnessing today in so many northern communities is a sort of quasi-liberalism which is based on the principle of looking sympathetically at all sides. It is a liberalism so bent on seeing all sides, that it fails to become committed to either side. It is a liberalism that is so objectively analytical that it is not subjectively committed. It is a liberalism which is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm. (All right) We call for a liberalism from the North which will be thoroughly committed to the ideal of racial justice and will not be deterred by the propaganda and subtle words of those who say: “Slow up for a while; you’re pushing too fast.”

Fifty-four years later, we have no need to talk about Northerners and Southerners, or white liberals vs. black liberals. But liberals and progressives of all races and regions cannot stand back and act as if the Voter ID movement has a point. They don’t have a point. They are trying to screw millions of people out of their inalienable right to vote just so they can win elections without appealing to the true electorate.

So, here’s one small thing you can do. Support Rep. Keith Ellison’s effort to raise awareness about this disenfranchisement campaign by signing on as a supporter of the two bills he is introducing:

The Voter Access Protection Act and the Same Day Registration Act will:

– Ensure that no American citizen is denied the right to vote because they don’t have a photo ID on Election Day
– Ensure that all Americans will be able to register to vote on the same day they cast their ballot

Give your support to those two bills and then you can do something even cooler. On Monday Jan. 23rd at 8:00PM EST Democracy for America will host a Telephone Town Hall with Rep. Keith Ellison to discuss the Republican attack on voting rights and what you can do about it. You can be on that call. Just sign-up and they’ll phone you and put you directly on with the Congressman.

The right to vote is fundamental, which is why Martin Luther King Jr. focused on the ballot when he rallied that day for the government to make good on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. He’s dead now. It’s up to us to protect the modern-day assault on the ballot.

[In the interests of full disclosure, I am consulting with Democracy for America on issues that may be mentioned on this blog. While I will continue to express my own views and opinions, any articles that may present a conflict of interest will contain this disclosure.]