What Are They Doing in Heaven Today
I’m thinking of friends whom I used to know,
Who lived and suffered down in this world below
They are gone to glory, yes dear Lord, whom I would like to know.
Oh can you tell you me, what are they doing now?
The mood of this gospel tune has been resonating since Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling.
Those who risked their lives, were brutalized or murdered on the road to gaining the protections enshrined in the Voting Rights Act, what are they doing now?
The recent, excellent recording of this song by Mavis Staples includes these verses:
There’s some who were poor and often despised
They looked up to heaven with tear-blinded eyes
While people were heedless and deaf to their cries
But what are they doing there now?
What are they doing in heaven today,
Where sin and sorrow are all done away?
Peace abounds like a river, they say.
What are they doing there now?
Those whom the system never served, to whom the Voting Rights Act is a monument, what are they doing now?
Who loses today? Not just the tens of millions of minority voters whose ability to cast a ballot now may be more easily restricted by new voting laws. Not just the millions who now will be more vulnerable to redistricting plans that are patently discriminatory. But the poor, the elderly, and the ill of all races, men and women who have voted lawfully for years but who will not be able to find the money to pay for new identification cards, or take the time out of work to travel to state offices to get one, or have the health to make the journey to obtain identification they otherwise do not need. These people, everywhere, were the indirect beneficiaries of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. And today their right to vote is far less secure.
So the losers today are registered voters like Craig Debose, a Vietnam veteran and longtime resident of South Carolina. Last year, he traveled 11 hours by train to Washington to testify in a Section 5 lawsuit. He doesn’t have a car, which is why he didn’t have photo identification, which is why he was going to be disenfranchised by state lawmakers until the Voting Rights Act saved him (for at least the last election cycle, the South Carolina law is still on the books). Losing today, too, is Jacqueline Kane, an elderly woman in Pennsylvania who had voted lawfully without incident for decades but who would have been forced from her nursing home to get an identification card. All to prevent “voter fraud” no one can prove.
Losing today also are citizens of all races in Texas who work for a living but cannot afford to travel hundreds of miles to state licensing offices. They were spared last year by Section 5 when a federal court declared, among other things, that officials intentionally limited the hours of operation for offices available to issue new identification cards so as to preclude the working poor from getting there. “A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionable denies or abridges their right to vote,” declared a federal court last year. Today’s ruling in Washington stands for precisely the opposite proposition.
Really the question is what are we doing now.
If my father were still here, his exact words would be, without a doubt, “don’t mourn, organize.”