The sanctuary of the Little Union Baptist Church in Dumfries was all but full for celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which included dancing, singing, praying and remarks by community leaders.
The Woodbridge Senior High School Army JROTC Color Guard posted the colors to open the ceremony as Zoree Jones, the Dr. King Oratorical Middle School Winner, led the gathering of roughly 400 in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Marie Williams, of the Creative and Performing Arts Center Inc., danced to the song Glory as part of the celebration, and the Little Union
Baptist Church Male Chorus sang twice during the service.
Rev. John Baynhum, of Little Union Baptist Church, gave the invocation and thanked “all of the people who paved the way to make the day possible.”
Others spoke of the history that led to the Voting Rights Act, which made literacy tests, poll taxes, moral character tests, and requirements to prove property ownership illegal. The act prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
Prince William Chairman Corey Stewart reminded those in attendance that the Voting Rights Act righted a longstanding wrong. “The 15th Amendment gave the right to all citizens to vote, but it wasn’t for another century … before that power was actually provided to all citizens. We seem to think that that was a long time ago, but it wasn’t. We’re still living in the aftermath of that adoption. We still have a way to go, and I think that as public officials, we all know that here in Virginia and throughout the country.”
Karl Brower, president of the Prince William County Area NAACP, spoke of the amendments that abolished slavery, established citizenship, gave women the right to vote, gave African Americans the right to vote in the District of Columbia, eliminated poll taxes and established voting for 18 year olds.
“These great amendments moved the nation toward the formation of a more perfect union whereby the rights of previously marginalized people were enshrined and the principal document of our nation,” Brower said. “While the process has been imperfect, where there is a history of some being counted as not a people, where there was a time when one’s skin color or gender determined if one could vote, over time the process has produced affirmation that the ethos of this great experiment of democracy is toward greater participation and inclusion… The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is an example of Congress enacting appropriate legislation to ensure this fundamental right.”
Joann Bagnerise, a panelist at the ceremony who lived through the turmoil that led to the Voting Rights Act, said the Voting Rights Act
helped people like her. “It was historic. It was needed because people like me could not vote.”
Bagnerise recognized President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the act. “To sign that 1965 Voting Rights Act, that was very, very significant for me and many, many others.” Bagnerise said people need to persist in encouraging others to vote to honor those who fought for the right. “We just need to be diligent and work.”
Ralph J. Smith, also a panelist, talked of working to register people throughout the Deep South, striving to eliminate poll taxes and literacy tests. He remembered the churches that housed and fed the so called “agitators” as they worked for voting rights.
Virginia Del. Rich Anderson and Congressman Gerald E. “Gerry” Connolly both spoke during the ceremony. Anderson said the ceremony
was a time to look forward with hope and optimism; and Connolly spoke of the sacred right to vote in a democracy and how nothing is more detrimental to democracy than an attempt to suppress the right to vote. He continued by saying that there was still work to do.
Marvella Johnson, who attended the ceremony, said she votes every time an election rolls around and said the ceremony moved her. “Actually it means a lot to me today. My grandfather struggled back in the day for voting rights. Based on his experience it’s important to me.”