As the July 4th Independence Day holiday approached this week, civil rights leaders across the country were focused on honing new strategies to attain the equality that the Declaration of Independence promises.
Stunned by a June 25 U. S. Supreme Court ruling that gutted one of the most crucial sections of the Voting Rights Act last week, activists and political leaders are engaged in a recurring battle for the realization of the words of the historic July 4, 1776, declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
The court’s decision, which especially jeopardizes the voting rights of African-Americans, has set off a firestorm of criticism that clearly will not end until Congress acts.
“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,” said U. S. Rep. John Lewis, who, as an activist, shed blood during the historic civil rights movement in order for the Act to pass in 1965. “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.”
In a nutshell, the decision said because most of these extreme atrocities no longer occur, Sections 4 and 5 of the VRA, which preclude certain states and localities from changing any voting laws or take any actions that affect voting unless approved by the U. S. Department of Justice.
Opposition is vehement. “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,” Lewis states.
President Obama agrees, and like dozens of civil rights leaders who are up in arms over the court decision, he too has vowed to help create remedies to protect the vote.
“While today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination,” President Obama said in a statement. “I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls. My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process.”
This is because the polarized Congress has failed to act on other crucial legislation, including a jobs bill, sequestration and Republicans are currently working to overturn the Affordable Care Act. The court’s decision, which acknowledges the Congress’s ability recreate appropriate remedies, has set off a fire storm of criticism by civil rights leaders who have spent the past several years fighting voting infringements by Republican legislatures.
Despite optimism coming from bi-partisan members of Congress, Lewis said he is “deeply concerned that Congress will not have the will to fix what the Supreme Court has broken.”
Initial indications are that congressional Republicans might at least try. Archconservative Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), House Majority Leader, has indicated he may even take the lead. According to the Richmond Free Press, Cantor, who is second in power to Republican House Speaker John Boehner, “was quick to side with Rep. Lewis and show interest in finding a way to repair the crucial section of the voting law that the Supreme Court majority voided.”
The newspaper quotes Cantor as saying in a statement: “My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all…I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside as we did on that trip and find a reasonable path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”
Though civil rights leaders were hit hard by the decision, some also express optimism that Congress will find a way to remedy the devastating blow.
Wade Henderson, President/CEO of the Leaders Conference on Civil and Human Rights, described the decision as “a major setback for our Democracy” and said, “We are urging Congress to act responsibly, but with urgency and on a bi-partisan basis to revive the coverage formula to protect voting rights for all Americans.”
Henderson was leading a conference call with reporters on the same day of the Court’s decision.
Henderson was joined on the call by a string of legal stalwarts, including Sherrilyn Ifill, president/direct counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Barbara Arnwine, president/CEO of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“We want Congress to get creative and to look at present day racial discrimination in our society and to craft laws that will protect the American citizenry,” said Arnwine.
Henderson concluded that rewriting the protections won’t be easy, but strongly believes Congress will unite to get it done.
“We are encouraged by the strong bi-partisan support that the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights received in both Houses of Congress. It was a record never before achieved,” he said. He said Congress will be fueled by the Court’s appearance of undermining Congress’s 2006 decision to reauthorize. Henderson called the decision “a slap at Congressional authority and power…We suspect that leaders of Congress, both Republican and Democratic, will respond to this challenge in a vigorous and thoughtful way and we expect the Congress to move expeditiously to repair the damage cause by today’s decision.”