The Civil Rights Act and the Olympics

Filed under OPINION

Thrill to the vibrant gymnastics grace of Gabby Douglas, the fierce tennis power of Serena Williams, the skill of Kayla Harrison in winning the first gold for an American woman in judo.

American women, including the swimming, beach volleyball, basketball and soccer teams led the way this Olympics.

It’s worth remembering why.

Rules matter
Opportunity is vital. A level playing field, clear goals, fair referees all count. This success comes from the amazing talent and extraordinary hard work and discipline of these gifted athletes, supported by family and skilled coaching.

But it also derives in part from what we chose to do as a society in 1972, when we included Title IX in the Civil Rights Act. Title IX outlawed discrimination by gender in any education program that received federal spending.

It didn’t mention sports, but its effects were electric. A 2006 study showed that the participation of women in athletics in high school had increased 900 percent, and more than 450 percent in college. Once women were given a fair shot, they demonstrated what they could do. We created the rules that allowed these extraordinary talents to triumph.

Last week was the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Clearly, it led to the voting rights and political empowerment of African-Americans and people of color who previously suffered discrimination. That act was fundamental to our democracy, extending the right to vote to those who had been denied it under segregation for so long.

Partisan constriction
Yet today, we are not celebrating the extension of democratic rights, but witnessing the partisan constriction of those rights. In 14 states where Republicans have control, they have passed laws constricting the right to vote. Many now are requiring official photo ID, some are purging the voter rolls, some have limited the ability to help register and get out the vote, and some have limited early voting. They claim they are trying to deter fraud, but they produce no evidence of it.

This is, as former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, wrote, “A mockery of the democracy we put on display every Election Day.” As New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall concluded, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Republican Party has decided that they must “tilt the playing field to win.”

In sad imitation of the poll tax and other impediments the segregated states of the South used to keep African-Americans from voting, the constrictions all have a disproportionate effect on the young, minorities, the poor – those least likely to be Republican supporters.

In this election, these laws may have dramatic effect. By discouraging many from going to the polls, they could make the difference in a state where the candidates are running neck and neck.

The Voting Rights Act, 47 years old this month, and the Civil Rights Act opened up opportunity.

They made the rules clear and equal. They made America better.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is president and CEO of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

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