ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The 50th anniversary of Voting Rights Act of 1965 is coming up Aug. 6, but in Minnesota the celebration began early.
Hundreds gathered in the Landmark Center in St. Paul Thursday to reflect on that historic milestone, the day President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill removing legal barriers to voting nationwide.
"The wrong is one that no American in his heart can justify," Johnson said in speech before he sat down and signed the landmark legislation.
Five of those on the stage in St. Paul lived that moment.
Dr. Josie Johnson, a civil rights activist and educator who served in the trenches of the voting rights movement, said it was important to honor that achievement from a half century ago.
But at the same time, she said, those who support justice should be forces bent on eroding those rights and erecting new roadblocks to voting access. She mentioned the US Supreme Court's decision to roll back some provisions of the law that had allowed federal oversight of election regulations in southern states.
"The right to vote is something we have to continue to fight for," Johnson explained.
"The issues that created the denial of voting rights still exists; the fact that it is still hard for most Anglo citizens to accept us as full citizens."
Walter Mondale, who later would become Vice President, was Minnesota's junior U.S. Senator at the time.
"The Voting Rights Act changed the country because it empowered all citizens, including blacks, to have the power of the ballot."
Mondale succeeded Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, who had championed the civil rights cause for decades.
"We had a large collection of progressive senators, Republicans as well as Democrats, who were for this, and it was a moving train," Mondale told reporters. "And we just all got on the train."
Sharing the stage with Mondale at the anniversary event were three other members of Minnesota's 1965 Congressional delegation; Don Fraser, Alec Olson and Al Quie.
Quie would later become the governor of Minnesota. Olson would serve as Lt. Governor under Rudy Perpich. And Fraser would later become the mayor of Minneapolis.
Quie recalled what he told fellow Republican members during a private caucus meeting before the historic vote.
"I stood up and I said it would be un-American and unchristian if you don't vote for this! Just like that. Looked them right in the eye, like that, and went over and sat down," Quie said.
"A Southern congressman came over and said, 'Quie, you say I'm not Christian?' I said, 'If you're following Christ you're going to vote for this legislation'!"
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon organized the event, in part to call attention to role that policymakers play in fulfilling the constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.
"Despite our differences and disagreements – and there are many of them – we can come together when the time is right, when the legislation is right," Simon asserted.
He said his goal is to find ways to expand access to voting for people who have a hard time reaching the polls, due to time consuming jobs or physical disabilities.
"I think the old 20th Century model of one-size-fits-all, one day every election cycle on a Tuesday, for a 13-hour period from 7 a.m to 8 p.m. just doesn't work anymore for everybody."