Voting Rights decision sends America back to the Good Old Days of the 1960’s

Edmund Pettus Bridge Confrontation March 7, 1965

Edmund Pettus Bridge Confrontation March 7, 1965

On August 6, 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In the nearly 50 years since, the Supreme Court has been renewed four times; in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. Today however, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a key provision of one of the most successful pieces of civil rights legislation enacted by Congress is unconstitutional. The court today struck down the provision that established the formula for determining which states and counties are required to get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before implementing changes in voting regulations. Their ruling effectively guts the legislation of its most effective and critical component.

Section 4 of the Act is the very reason for the success that the Court majority cited in its opinion. The Law has improved voter participation in minority communities because it has blocked covered jurisdictions from implementing restrictions that would have discriminated against minority voters. But as the Court seems to see it, since the law is working so well we no longer need the part that made it successful. The decision is akin to a city council that after installing a four-way stop at an intersection to reduce accidents deciding to remove the stop signs because the number of accidents have been significantly reduced.

Rep. John R. Lewis speaks at Cal State University, Fullerton in observance of Black History Month 2012. (Photo: Chris Prevatt)

Rep. John R. Lewis speaks at Cal State University, Fullerton in observance of Black History Month 2012. (Photo: Chris Prevatt)

Civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis said, “People bled and died seeking to end the discrimination addressed by the Voting Rights Act, and the Supreme Court took the country a step backward to those infamous days Tuesday by invalidating one of the law’s key provisions.”

In a prepared statement Lewis said:

“Today, the Supreme Court stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most effective pieces of legislation Congress has passed in the last 50 years.

These men never stood in unmovable lines.  They were never denied the right to participate in the democratic process.  They were never beaten, jailed, run off their farms or fired from their jobs. No one they knew died simply trying to register to vote.  They are not the victims of gerrymandering or contemporary unjust schemes to maneuver them out of their constitutional rights.

I remember in the 1960s when people of color were the majority in the small town of Tuskegee, Alabama.  To insure that a black person would not be elected, the state gerrymandered Tuskegee Institute and the black sections of town so they fell outside the city limits.  This reminds me too much of a case that occurred in Randolph County in my own state of Georgia, when the first black man was elected to the board of education in 2002.  The county legislature changed his district so he would not be re-elected.

I disagree with the court that the history of discrimination is somehow irrelevant today.  The record clearly demonstrates numerous attempts to impede voting rights still exist, and it does not matter that those attempts are not as “pervasive, widespread or rampant” as they were in 1965.  One instance of discrimination is too much in a democracy.

As Justice Ginsberg mentioned, it took a Bloody Sunday for Congress to finally decide to fix on-going, institutionalized discrimination that occurred for 100 years after the rights of freed slaves were nullified at the end of the Civil War.  I am deeply concerned that Congress will not have the will to fix what the Supreme Court has broken.   I call upon the members of this body to do what is right to insure free and fair access to the ballot box in this country.”

In the early 1960’s Lewis He became a part of the civil rights movement, organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville; volunteering for the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South; and enduring severe beatings and incarceration for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation laws. During the height of the movement, from 1963 to 1966, Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he helped form. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, joining Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer and Roy Wilkins. By the time he was 23, Lewis was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.

Despite more than 40 arrests, brutal physical attacks and serious injuries, Lewis has remained an advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence and continues to fight for human rights in the United States. Representative Lewis spoke of how he first met the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and of the Selma to Montgomery march which resulted in 2,500 protesters turning around after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Edmund Pettus Bridge incident contributed significantly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez welcomes Rep. John R. Lewis to CSUF for Black History Monthe 2012

Rep. Loretta Sanchez welcomes Rep. John R. Lewis to CSUF for Black History Monthe 2012

In February of 2012 Lewis spoke on the occasion of Black History Month at Cal State Fullerton and was introduced by Rep. Loretta Sanchez. After the decision from the Court was announced, Sanchez released the following statement:

“Today’s Supreme Court Ruling striking down key parts of the Voting Rights Act is a significant setback for all Americans, in particular minorities who have been and will now be at greater risk of disenfranchisement.  For nearly five decades, the Voting Rights Act has protected the rights of minority voters through a pre-clearance process that I  believe, if taken away, will marginalize the voices of millions of voters.

“Time is of the essence, and Congress must act fast and use its power to ensure that every American has equal access to the ballot box, and that the power of the minority vote will not be diluted by this short sighted decision by the Court.”

One of our other two democratic congressional representatives from Orange County, Alan Lowenthal, said in a press statement:

 “I agree with Justice Ginsberg, who said in her dissent that the Voting Rights Act is one of the ‘most consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative power in our Nation’s history.’ Today’s decision by the court majority eviscerates the VRA and opens the door for voter discrimination and suppression on an unprecedented level. This is a sizable step backwards in our collective national journey toward social justice and civil rights. Congress must move quickly in a decisive bipartisan way to update the VRA and continue vital protections for minority voters.”

The Court’s decision today does give Congress the opportunity to correct the formula used to determine what jurisdictions should be covered under the Act. It is doubtful however that the current Republican dominated House of Representatives will be able to stifle its racist roots and establish a new formula for Section 4. But that should not deter you from writing to your representative in Congress and demand that he or she restore the Civil Rights Act that the Supreme Court took away today. By way of example, there are no official statements from any of Orange County’s Republican House delegation that we can find on the Court’s decision.

Rep. John Lewis addresses the 2012 Democratic National Committee Convention

Rep. John Lewis addresses the 2012 Democratic National Committee Convention

There is a well documented history of voter suppression efforts by Republicans, Representative Lewis, in his remarks to the 2012 Democratic Convention delegates, warned of the attempts by some Republicans to attack the very heart of civil rights in America, the right to vote.

Today it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials still trying to stop some people from voting. They are changing the rules, cutting polling hours and imposing requirements intended to suppress the vote. The Republican leader in the Pennsylvania House even bragged that his state’s new voter ID law is “gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.” That’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not just.

And similar efforts have been made in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina. I’ve seen this before. I’ve lived this before. Too many people struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.

And we have come too far together to ever turn back.