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Demonstrators Reflect On The Fight For Voting Rights


Thousands of people marched through the streets of the nation's capital on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the historic March on Washington. They see their efforts as a continuation of a decades-old fight. They say the movement is intergenerational. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Helen Robinson couldn't forget her granddaughter's first protest.

HELEN ROBINSON: You don't remember.

KIERRA PORTER: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah (laughter).

SUMMERS: Robinson is 68 years old and was a longtime union activist. She remembered one round of contract negotiations with her granddaughter Kierra Porter by her side.

H ROBINSON: Maybe 5 or 6. And I've got her marching with a sign around the building. You know, so she doesn't really remember that, but yeah.

SUMMERS: Passing down the value of organizing was important for Robinson. She and Porter marched together Saturday. Robinson said she's worried about the wave of new voting restrictions from Republican-led state legislatures. She said they could have a disproportionate impact on voters of color.

H ROBINSON: We going to - Black folks and brown folks and other minorities are going to be in a world of trouble.

SUMMERS: For Porter, who is now 26, this feels like history lessons she learned in school playing out in real time.

PORTER: We learned about, like, everything that happened, like, in the past. And, like, from there, it was like, OK, we've gotten past, like, a lot of things. Like, we've overcome a lot. Like, we're looking towards better days. And then years to come later, it's like, oh, my God. Like, this is like what happened in, like, the textbooks.

SUMMERS: Demonstrators gathered on the mall called on Congress to pass a pair of voting rights measures and to eliminate the filibuster to do so if necessary. Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama rallied the crowd.



SEWELL: Selma.


SEWELL: When I say voting rights, we say now. Voting rights.


SEWELL: Voting rights.


SUMMERS: Protesters cheered and waved signs, many wearing masks on a blistering hot day.

STEPHANIE ROBINSON: Even though we're in - within a pandemic, we're still showing up for this country.

SUMMERS: That's Stephanie Robinson from Washington, D.C. She's 66 and just retired.

S ROBINSON: We have young people mixed with some of the seniors from that 58 years ago. So that's monumental. And the difference is - it's like, we're still here. We're still fighting, and it's like we're not going to be turned around.

SUMMERS: For Boyd Pearson, this was a moment to reflect on a missed opportunity.

BOYD PEARSON: Well, first voting act came when I was in grade school. And now that I'm a senior adult, I want to make up for lost time.

SUMMERS: Pearson, who is 67, said he was frustrated that some hard-fought victories seem to be unraveling in front of him.

PEARSON: This is ridiculous fighting hundred 100 years just to get the right to vote and watch it just be dismantled and then start all over again.

SUMMERS: A reference to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, weakened by two Supreme Court decisions over the last decade - one of the voting rights bills Democrats are pushing seeks to strengthen it. When Frank Smith thinks about today's fight for voting rights, he remembers what it was like to be on the Mall that day in 1963. We spoke over the phone before this weekend's march.

FRANK SMITH: I'd never seen that many people before in my life. And so it was the first time I think I realized that our movement was going to have some success. I don't know if I felt that before.

SUMMERS: Smith was an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That day gave him hope. Despite setbacks, he feels like the country can unite behind the cause of voting rights.

SMITH: This is a fight, but I think it's one that I feel like we can win.

SUMMERS: Hope and determination are two things that also motivated Jonathan Brown, who came to Saturday's march with an older friend from his church. The 36-year-old sees fighting for voting rights as linked to his faith.

JONATHAN BROWN: I also hope this is a passing-of-the-torch moment. I think this is a really amazing time for a lot of young people to start stepping up and taking on the fight. And, hopefully, maybe this fight will be over one day.

SUMMERS: Activists say this moment demands action now and hope Washington is ready to move on it. Juana Summers, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.