how long

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?”

Martin Luther King, Jr. asked these questions on March 25th, 1965, after the third of three tumultuous and bloody marches to protest discrimination and alienation of black voters at the polls. His now-famous answer was “Not long.” And he was right – in five months, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, making it a crime to use literacy tests and other measures to prevent voting.

It was a pretty phenomenal achievement. The act is set to expire, this year, and Congress is preparing to re-authorize it. How do House Republicans honor this feat of civic progress? By proposing that we let key provisions expire – namely, bilingual ballots and translation services, opening the door for the same kind of voter disenfranchisement that the civil rights movement in the 60s struggled to eliminate.

It’s interesting to see how the debate over illegal immigration has regressed into something different, and worse: the politics of bigotry and divisiveness, centered on issues that have nothing to do with immigration. The Republicans, apparently devoid of any substantive ideas, are quick to capitalize on this unfortunate development, catering to racism and xenophobia. If there was ever any doubt that the Republican party has picked up where the dixiecrats left off in the 1960s, there isn’t anymore.

The debate over the Spanish-language anthem was infuriatingly stupid, but it was ultimately harmless. (What could possibly come of it? The criminalization of anthem translation?) This is more insidious, though, as it could have a real impact on the ability of U.S. citizens to vote. To his credit, James Sensenbrenner Jr., also a Republican, said it much better than I could:

… this deals with the right to vote, and these people are United States citizens; they are not illegal immigrants. It seems to me these people should not be confused because they don’t have the proper instruction about how to vote on ballots for the candidates of their choice.”

Fortunately, for as much as bigotry is re-surfacing (Don’t call it a comeback – it’s been here for years), the measure probably won’t go anywhere – as convenient a target Hispanics make, lawmakers need their votes too much to alienate them completely.