Today we celebrate the extension of the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another 25 years. I recently had the honor and privilege of attending the official signing ceremony of what is formally called the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006 on the South Lawn of the White House. The audience comprised a veritable who’s who of the civil rights movement. Living legends who were present included Dorothy I. Height, Julian Bond, Joseph and Evelyn Lowery, Benjamin Hooks, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Juanita Abernathy. Even Johnnie Carr, longtime president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, was there from Montgomery, Ala.
The feeling in the air was one of cautious optimism. The long battle to renew the Voting Rights Act was over once again, but was it really? This feeling was manifested in the midst of President Bush’s signing remarks, when he said he was committed to ensuring that the provisions of the act that protect our voting rights are enforced. Bush specifically stated, “My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law and we will defend it in court.” At that moment, Julian Bond, Joseph Lowery and Benjamin Hooks stood up, it seemed, in a spontaneous action, to express for all of us that we were not at the ceremony for form and fashion, but to hear first hand where the president stood on ensuring that the Justice Department would vigorously enforce the Act.
Prior to the start of the ceremony, we all stood in line in the sweltering 95-degree heat. As we waited, many civil rights leaders, activists and scholars shared their concerns that the battle was not over and that there was a need to stay vigilant in monitoring the implementation of the Voting Rights Act by the actions [or inactions] of the U.S. Justice Department, which is the federal agency responsible for enforcement of the Act. Many legal scholars further warned that the next voting rights battle may take place in the U.S. Supreme Court. Let us not forget the recent challenge by a few detractors in Congress who attempted to hijack H.R. 9 by trying to remove key provisions, namely Sections 5, 203 and 6-9, during the legislature’s reauthorization process.
Section 5 requires covered jurisdictions with a long history of voting discrimination to obtain approval, or “pre-clearance,” before making any changes to their voting practices. Section 203 requires certain jurisdictions to provide language assistance to voters in areas with high concentrations of citizens with limited English proficiency and illiteracy rates higher than the national average. Sections 6-9 authorize the federal government to use observers in elections to monitor Voting Rights Act compliance and document abuses.
Furthermore, there are those who likely will start to file lawsuits in federal court to continue to challenge the need for the Voting Rights Act to be enforced, with the ultimate goal of filing a suit that ends up in the Supreme Court in hopes of having the Act declared unconstitutional.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to supplement the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. It guarantees that no federal, state or local government can impede or discourage the voting rights of citizens. The Act serves as the legacy of the countless numbers of African-Americans and other citizens of conscience who braved hostility and brutality to ensure the right to vote.
Let us never forget to remember that there will always be detractors who believe that “states rights” supersede “federal rights.” The Black American experience is rooted in a core struggle to ensure that states rights do not impede our ability to exercise our right to be full citizens of our representative democracy. Our history reminds us that it was states rights that enforced the doctrine of “separate but equal.” It was states rights that kept us in slavery for more than 400 years.
As we celebrate yet another milestone in our history here in America—the renewal and restoration of the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement provisions—we cannot afford to be distracted by form and fashion. We know that the “enemy never sleeps, they just take coffee breaks.” I therefore challenge each of us to take a short coffee break and get ready for the next battle to protect the right to protect our vote. And, indeed, that battle may very well be in the highest court in the land. Stay tuned…
Melanie L. Campbell is the executive director and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (www.ncbcp.org ), a 30-year-old, nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization working to increase African-American engagement in civil society.
By Melanie L. Campbell