The Voting Rights Act, 40 Years Later

Saturday, August 6, marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the measure into law, guaranteeing the right of all Americans to vote regardless of creed or color. But some provisions of the legislation may be in jeopardy when the Act comes up for renewal in two years. Ed Gordon talks with the Rev. Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition and Barbara Arnwine, executive director of The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Tomorrow marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the measure into law, guaranteeing African-Americans' right to vote.

(Soundbite of 1965 audio)

President LYNDON B. JOHNSON: At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state in America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American rights. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice, and we shall overcome.

GORDON: But some provisions of the legislation are in jeopardy when the act comes up for renewal in two years. This week, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales promised the Bush administration would work to extend it.

(Soundbite of this week's statement)

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (US Attorney General): President Bush is committed to the basic ideals embodied in this legislation, and his affirmation of equal voting rights is unqualified. He wants to ensure that every qualified person in every community of American citizens has an equal chance to not only vote, but also have that vote count.

GORDON: Joining me at member station WCLK in Atlanta is the Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. And on the phone from Orlando, Florida, Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

Reverend, before we get into the march that you will hold in Atlanta on Saturday, I know you want to talk about what we are hearing from the attorney General.

Reverend JESSE JACKSON (Founder and President, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition): I do. To put this thing in context, we were denied the right to vote for 346 years, 246 without citizenship, and then the promise of 1870 was broken. So Johnson called it `honoring the broken promise.' We must put that context. Those that we defeated in 1965 changed parties but didn't change stripes. They never gave up on trying to undercut or diminish the vote, using gerrymandering, annexation at large, roll purging, voter intimidation, gentrification. They never stopped trying. But the '84 and '88 campaigns escalated our participation big time, but by '92 or '96, because of those two campaigns, Dole and Bush got more white votes than Clinton. Clinton got more white, black and brown than they got, and he won. So while we focused on voter registration, they're focused on schemes of voter nullification or neutering the vote. So in 2000, 2004, arguably, our voter participation increased, but so did the schemes to undermine that vote in 2000, so we won the vote and we lost the count.

Now in 2007, up for renewal is Section 5, the pre-clearance provision, to protect us from racial discrimination, and Section 203, the language provision. And when the Black Caucus met with President Bush, Congressman Jackson said to him, `Mr. Bush, will you support Voting Rights reauthorization with enforcement powers?' President Bush said, `I don't support DC statehood.' `That's not what I asked you. Do you support the Voting Rights Act of '65 with enforcement powers?' He said, `I don't know what you're talking about.' When he took that disclaimer position, that was suggestive.

So in Georgia, for example, today, the reduced voter access ID, just 18-to-5; you can only use state-issued ID. So if you go to Georgia Tech, you can use your ID to register, but if you go to Clark or Spelman, you can't use your ID to register--or Emory. What does that suggest? There are a hundred colleges in the state that have no voter issuance ID place. If you don't have transportation, it's difficult to register; disparate impact on poor and black people. Or if you have a car and drive, the price of gas amounts to a poll tax. So it is a scheme to make voting more restrictive. That's why The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and New York Times have said the Department of Justice should reject this.

But Mr. Gonzales--his speech in Texas focused on language provisions, trying to appeal for Hispanics, but ignored Section 5, the racial dimension of it, which is what Selma was about: ending the dimension of slavery and Jim Crow. He ignored Section 5. He ignored the crisis in Georgia, in Indiana, as well as the fraud that took place in Ohio last year.

GORDON: So you see this, to a great degree, as playing both ends against the middle--the idea that they are continuing to try to reach out to Latinos and saying, `We're saving this provision,' but not dealing with what is most important.

Rev. JACKSON: That's right. And you--and the thing about this is that the Selma battle was about Section 5. It was about race discrimination. They also added language, which was the right thing to do. But the Voting Rights Act was not for blacks only and not for South only.

GORDON: Right.

Rev. JACKSON: It's nine Southern states, but nine states outside of the South that are affected. All of Alaska and parts of California, parts of New York, for example, are part of the Voting Rights Act of '65; or poor whites who couldn't pay poll taxes could not vote. So just as blacks saved the Union in the Civil War, we've saved democracy in 1965. And now that Voting Rights Act and its enforcement provisions are under attack, and I'm glad that Barbara Arnwine is with us. She may be the most knowledgeable legal-scientific mind in America today on how this thing is unfolding. So we do have good information. We have a good cause. So August 6th we'll celebrate the Voting Rights Act by marching.

GORDON: Barbara Arnwine, explain to the layman who may not understand the Voting Rights Act why it is so important to keep these provisions, not only historically, but present day.

Ms. BARBARA ARNWINE (Executive Director, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law): Absolutely. I want everyone to understand that the Voting Rights Act has what are called permanent provisions, which is Section 2, and other provisions that are ongoing. What is happening is that three very, very vital provisions of the act are expiring. These are temporary provisions. They are reviewed periodically by Congress to make sure that they're still needed. The provisions are, as Reverend Jackson has said, Section 5, which is the pre-clearance provision. It basically says any jurisdiction--and, by the way, this covers about 4,000 jurisdictions in the United States, covering not only African-Americans but also Latinos and Native American districts. And basically what it says is that none of these jurisdictions that are covered--counties, cities, states--can enact any kind of electoral change without a pre-clearance by the department to justify that this will not have a discriminatory impact or effect upon the racial minorities that are covered.

So then the very important provision that I'm surprised he didn't mention at all is provisions 6 through 10, which are basically the provisions that cover the authority of the Justice Department to intervene in elections and to...

Rev. JACKSON: Yeah.

Ms. ARNWINE: ...monitor poll sites. Now what people need to understand is that this is not historic, that this is about current-day discrimination, because the Lawyers' Committee was involved in a lawsuit last year where the county commissioners of Waller County, Texas, right outside of Houston, and--challenged the voters who were minorities, and basically what they said was that they were going to have polling hours for early voters three days in the white community and one day in the black community. Now that, in its face, is absolutely discriminatory and unequal, but they were trying to get away with it even though under Section 5 the whole state of Texas is covered and they had not pre-cleared. We made that clear to them, that they were in violation of the law, and they rescinded and gave everybody the same amount of early voting time.

So that just shows you that these are not passe issues. The need for the Justice Department to monitor was made clear in 2003 in November. Again, there's--just a great example of it is where, in Louisville, there was an attempt to bring in 500 challengers into the black community only to challenge black voters...

GORDON: Right.

Ms. ARNWINE: ...because of a flier that was passed around in the state, namely to Republicans, that said, you know, `Don't let blacks steal another election.' And it was very, very vicious. It was totally racial. And the Justice Department, after groups like myself and others, you know, complained, had to tell the entities who were trying to do this challenge that it was...

GORDON: Right.

Ms. ARNWINE: ...illegal and that they would prosecute them if they...

GORDON: Reverend, I know you want to pick up on a couple of these points, but I also want you to hit on one key thing, I think, here that people will miss, and it's what I call the political domino effect. If you continue to allow these gains to be chipped away, ofttimes, those who are looking to regress civil rights gains will see this as a victory and move on to others.

Rev. JACKSON: A classic case--when Tom DeLay in Texas can target Martin Frost and see him as an illegitimate opposition and simply redraw the lines and wipe him out, and the Department of Justice turns its head away. An unenforced law becomes like an Indian treaty. It's on paper, but it's not real. When they can make a move in Georgia to restrict voting, but they also can reduce black congressional representation from four down to one--so what is at stake here is fair--is the equal right to vote, but also fair representation, because if Department of Justice will turn its head as these maneuvers take place on race and language, we're talking about a radical setback. So you'll have the right to vote, but the right to vote without enforcement is a gun without the trigger, the right to swim in a pool without the water. It only makes sense if it is, in fact, enforced. And this administration, both Gonzales and the previous attorney general, have not been willing to, in fact, vigorously enforce the law.

GORDON: All right. We should note, again, Reverend Jackson, the march is when?

Rev. JACKSON: August 6th. It's the 40th anniversary. I must say, again, we were denied the right to vote for 346 years. This was the breakthrough. And those that we defeated then have never stopped trying to undercut it, so we must march. We fought to get it; we must now fight to keep it.

GORDON: Mega Fest is here, the Black Journalists Convention, Billboard Music--a lot of people here in Atlanta. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder and president of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, I thank you both for joining us.

Rev. JACKSON: Thank you.

Ms. ARNWINE: Thank you so much.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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