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Keep the Voting Rights Act Alive

Extraordinary remedies are still required to protect minority enfranchisement

BY Salim Muwakkil

A major march is on tap for August 6 in Atlanta to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and to mobilize support for extension of some of the Act’s provisions. Although conceived and convened by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the march has been enthusiastically endorsed and applauded by a wide array of civil rights, voting rights and civil liberties groups.

“We see schemes to undermine voting growing and the silence from the Department of Justice is deafening,” Jackson said at a news conference last month announcing the march. “The Voting Rights Act is a sacred act and it should not be tampered with.”

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson after a decade of civil rights activism revealed the deep roots of opposition to black enfranchisement. The Act has been hailed as the most successful civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress. Many experts credit it directly for the emergence of a distinct black electorate and for more than 9,000 black elected officials. What’s more, the legislation helped not just black voters in the South, but Latinos, Native Americans and other minorities.

Key provisions of the Act are set to expire in August 2007 and the “Keep the Vote Alive” march in Atlanta also is a demand for President George W. Bush and Congress to extend those provisions.

This renewed attention on the 1965 bill is a bit of a shift in tactics for civil rights groups, who for years had to aggressively debunk widespread rumors that a congressional refusal to extend the Act would remove African-Americans’ right to vote. After formerly assuring black voters the Act could not expire, the civil rights community now must mobilize support around a more nuanced reading of the 40-year-old legislation.

The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote, but that guarantee was often stymied by government officials committed to white supremacy. The civil rights movement fought to strengthen the 15th Amendment and helped produce the Voting Rights Act, which further mandated that no federal, state or local government shall impede or discourage people from registering to vote or voting because of their race.

However racist voting practices had become so embedded in many regions of the country-most notably the South-that framers of the Act had to include “extraordinary remedies” to root them out. Those special features were scheduled to expire in 1970, but legislators have extended them twice since then.

Among the provisions scheduled to expire in 2007 is one that requires certain states and precincts-again, most of them in the South-to get the Justice Department to give “pre-clearance” to changes in voting time, place or manner. March supporters argue this provision is one of the most important components of the Act.

“Anyone who claims that voting rights for minority Americans are now secure need only to look to Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004,” said NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond, during the group’s annual convention last month in Milwaukee. The NAACP has aggressively sought to redress the polling irregularities and other barriers black voters faced during those elections, and is strongly supporting the August 6 march.

“In 1965, it was about vote denial; today we have what we call second-generation discrimination, or vote dilution or limiting the effectiveness of minority voting,” said Debo Adegbile, an NAACP official.

Another extraordinary remedy set to expire requires localities that have heavy populations of non-English speakers to provide ballots and instruction in other languages.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the judiciary committee, spoke at the NAACP convention and pledged support for an extension of the endangered provisions. “While we have made progress and curtailed injustices thanks to the Voting Rights Act, our work is not yet complete,” he told the NAACP crowd. “We cannot let discriminatory practices of the past resurface to threaten future gains.”

Although legislators on both sides of the aisle seem amenable to another extension of the Act and all its provisions, there is opposition. Abigale Thernstrom, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and Edward Blum, a senior fellow with the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, criticized politicians for vocally backing reauthorization in a recent July column in the Wall Street Journal. “Draconian federal intrusion into local elections was justified when it was the only way to enfranchise Southern blacks-but 40 years on, it’s an unconstitutional travesty,” they wrote.

Many in this conservative Congress share those sentiments and probably would express them loudly were it not for the GOP’s current crusade to capture more black mindshare. Instead, conservative Rep. Sensenbrenner announced to NAACP delegates that Republicans would draft a 25-year reauthorization of the act.

The August 6 march has failed to stir up much excitement within the black community. But it already has been successful in the goal to transform a 40-year-old congressional bill into a civil rights icon.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of "The Salim Muwakkil" show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.

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