There are many ways to honor the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but none more important this year than defending the freedom to vote.

On Saturday, Dr. King’s birthday, and Monday, the federal holiday, groups from around the country marched across bridges to commemorate the Bloody Sunday clash in March 1965, when voting rights advocates were accosted and beaten as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. 

Specious claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election have led to repressive laws in many states designed to discourage or deny access to the ballot, some targeted specifically at African-Americans. President Biden and Democrats in Congress pushed this week for passage of federal legislation aimed at making it easier to vote and protecting against partisan interference.

Voter suppression has a long history in America, and even the right for most to vote was hard won over generations.

The 15th Amendment, ratified by the states in 1870, extended the right to vote to men of all races. Women did not gain suffrage until 1920, and adults between 18 and 21 could not vote until 1981.

But even as voting rights expanded, restrictions like literacy tests and poll taxes that effectively negated those rights persisted. Dr. King and others successfully campaigned for the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which specifically sought to enforce the 15th amendment by, among other things, providing federal oversight of localities with a history of voter suppression.

That authority was eroded by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, even as new barriers to voting were in the works in dozens of states. Today, gerrymandering of voting districts and laws that make it more difficult to register and restrictions on mail and absentee voting have replaced the crude suppression tools of the past.

The death this week of Lani Guinier, a civil rights lawyer and longtime Oak Bluffs seasonal resident whose career was devoted to voting rights and electoral reform, marks the end of another generation’s efforts to uphold not just the right to vote, but the freedom to do so.

Based on the belief that people should be fairly represented by those that govern them, her writings on proportional voting cost her a nomination as assistant U.S. attorney general in the 1980s. She went on to join the Harvard Law School faculty, the first woman of color to be tenured, where many of her views became mainstream.

Polls suggest that Americans want free and fair elections, but don’t put the issue on their list of priority concerns. History suggests that the right to vote must be vigorously defended. One way to honor the legacies of Dr. King and Professor Guinier is to take up their cause.