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Extras - Commentary: Voters Rights Act

By Beth Wellington, Published on November 3, 2006
Beth Wellington is a Roanoke, Virginia based poet and journalist. She is a contributing editor to the New River Free Press, a book reviewer for the Roanoke Times and a member of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC) and the Appalachian Studies Association. From 1980 to 1997, she was the founding Executive Director of New River Community Sentencing, Inc. in Christiansburg, Virginia and its predecessor, New River Community Action's Community Sentencing Program. She contributes to both SourceWatch.org and Wikipedia.org. Beth's blog on culture and politics is The Writing Corner.

[Editor's note: On July 13, 2006, "...the House renewed Sections 5, 203, and 6-9 of the Voting Rights Act by a 390-33 vote, rejecting amendments to weaken the Act that were introduced by Reps. Lynn Westmoreland and Charlie Norwood of Georgia, Rep. Steven King of Iowa, and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas." Link ]

The photo by Charles Moore depicts Alabama state troopers in gas masks firing teargas at non-violent civil rights marchers and then charging them for second time appears in Powerful Days, The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in 1991 and reissued by the University of Alabama press in 2002.

While the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified February 3, 1870, prohibits the states or the federal government from using a citizen's race, color, or previous status as a slave as a voting qualification, enfranchisement waited until the Voting Acts Right of 1965 which eliminated literacy tests, poll taxes and other practices meant to discourage political participation by minority voters.

The measure passed in the wake of violence including March 7, 1965's Bloody Sunday, shown above, when armed lawmen attacked 525 non-violent protesters attempting to march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery.

One of the marchers was Sheyann Webb, at the time eight years old. In "Running for her Life," an interview for the PBS special Eyes on the Prize she recounted the day.

As we approached the bridge, I was getting more and more frightened, and as we got to the top of the bridge, I could see hundreds of policemen, state troopers, billy clubs, dogs, and horses, and I began to just cry. I remember the ministers who were at the front of the line [told us to] kneel down and pray. I knelt down and I said to myself, "Lord, help me." Once we had gotten up, all I can remember is outbursts of tear gas. I saw people being beaten and I began to just try to run home as fast as I could. And as I began to run home, I saw horses behind me, and I will never forget a Freedom Fighter picked me up, Hosea Williams, and I told him to put me down, he wasn't running fast enough. And I ran, and I ran, and I ran. It was like I was running for my life.

Another was Joanne Bland, Executive Director of National Voting Rights Museum and Institute (NVRMI) in Selma, who was eleven at the time. As she told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now's March 7, 2005 broadcast commemorating the 40th anniversary of the march:

When we cleared the bridge, atop the bridge I saw the policemen, and I knew we were not going to Montgomery, so I -- being a warrior, I knew the procedure. I knew that we would kneel in prayer and after prayer go back to the church. I kept waiting for the front to go down. I was too far back to really hear anything that was said down front. But suddenly, we heard screams and gunshots, and we thought -- I thought -- what I thought were gunshots, and we thought - I thought were gunshots. And the people started screaming, and people turned, and then the police came in from behind and on the sides. We were completely surrounded. They just started beating people. People were being trampled, not only by the police and the horses, but by each other, trying to get away. It was just pandemonium. It was horrible. Blood was everywhere on the bridge. The screams is what I remember the most, you know, and the horses that were so afraid that they would rear to try to get away from the people. And these men relentlessly plowing the horses into the crowd, and the gunshots I heard turned out to be tear gas canisters exploding, and then the tear gas burning your eyes. Can't breathe, can't see. I mean, we panicked and couldn't get away. People were laying everywhere. You were tripping over people that at the time your mind registered that they were dead. In fact, the last thing I remember on that bridge is seeing this lady being trampled, and I don't know whether it's the sound of her head or my head hitting that pavement. That's the last thing I remember. When I awakened, I was in a car on the Selma side of the bridge in the back of a car, and my sister was in the car, and she was crying. And when I became fully awake, I realized it was not her tears falling on my face, it was her blood. She was 14 and had been beaten on the bridge and had wounds that required stitches. It was awful. I'll never forget it as long as I live.

A longer interview with Bland can be found in an interview by Carol Dawson, which appeared in the issue of September-October 2003 Baylor Magazine. By the time of the march, she had already been "jailed 13 times for demonstrating, once for eight days on a prison farm." The sites for the VRMI online appear defunct, but Tyina Steptoe, a University of Wisconsin, Madison PhD candidate in history from Houston, kept an interesting blog Lone Star in Selma, including photographs, while she interned at the VRMI this spring.

Even after Bloody Sunday, there continued to be resistance as noted by syndicated columnist and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson and by the Dirksen Congressional Center, which houses the papers of the Senate Minority Leader at that time, Everett McKinley Dirksen.

Since 1965, The Voting Rights Act has been amended and strengthened --- in 1970, 1975 and 1982. Three provisions of the act are set to expire August 6, 2007. Section 5 requires nine jurisdictions with significant histories of discrimination in voting to get federal approval of any new voting practices or procedures (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) Section 203, first included in 1975, ensures that U.S. citizen voters with limited English proficiency get help at the polls. Sections 6-9 authorizes the attorney general to appoint federal election observers where there is evidence of attempts to intimidate minority voters at the polls.

Based upon the ten oversight hearings conducted by the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee since the fall of 2005, on May 2, 2006, the Committee's Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI) introduced the bipartisan H.R. 9, to extend those provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for another 25 years.

The measure also addresses two recent Supreme Court decisions which have eroded Section 5 of the act--Reno v. Bossier Parish II and Georgia v. Ashcroft. H.R. 9 restores the original congressional intent by clarifying that Section 5 can block voting changes that intentionally discriminate against minority voters and ensures that minority voters have the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice who share their values, interests and concerns. The Act also would allowing the recovery of fees for plaintiffs' expert witness needed to document the the existence of discrimination.

The Constitution subcommittee, chaired by Steve Chabot (R-OH) held additional hearings on May 4 and after the May 10 mark-up 10, on a 33-1 vote reported the bill May 22. The lone dissenter, Steve King (R-IA), objected to provisions to provide bilingual ballot assistance. The vote on the bill was to have taken place June 21.

But, as reported in the Atlantic Journal Constitution on June 22, 2006 by Margaret Coker and Tom Baxter in their story "Georgia bloc wins delay in rights vote", on the morning of the scheduled vote, the Republican House leadership removed the measure from the calendar at a caucus meeting in response to objections led by freshman Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) who argued that the law unfairly singled out the states required to clear changes in their elections statutes with the U.S. Department of Justice or U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.

John Lewis (D-GA) who was one of the leaders of the march on Bloody Sunday issued his analysis in a June 27 press release.

The fact is that there have been over 1000 objections issued by the Justice Department since the last reauthorization of Section 5 in 1982. The evidence is so overwhelming that the Judiciary Committee voted 33 to 1, both Republicans and Democrats, in favor of Section 5 reauthorization. Furthermore, they felt Section 5 was still such a pertinent remedy to current voting discrimination problems that they returned that section to its original power in the H.R. 9 reauthorization bill, since it had been weakened by recent judicial decisions.

The opponents to Section 5 must be made to confront the persistent evidence of voting discrimination in America. How does Mr. Westmoreland respond to the DOJ objections to discriminatory voting plans that occurred in his district in the cities of Ashburn, Forsyth, East Dublin, Macon, and Griffin and in the counties of Bibb and Twiggs? How do he and Mr. Norwood respond to the 20 objections lodged by the DOJ since1982 regarding statewide voting plans deemed to be in violation of the VRA? There is an old Southern saying that goes the dog that howls the most is the one who got hit. Is it possible that Rep. Westmoreland wants to gut Section 5 because Georgia and the 9th congressional district have been required to change discriminatory laws? I think that possibility bears some scrutiny.

King and Cliff Stearns (R-FL), among others, also raised their objections to the bilingual ballot requirements. On June 28, Stearns failed by a vote of 254-167 to add an amendment to that effect to H.R. 5672, the Science, State, Justice, Commerce, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act. Lewis had responded to the Stearns amendment in a June 28 press release:

The Stearns Amendment is a modern-day literacy test. It is a back-door attempt, through the appropriations process, to cripple federal enforcement of Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act. We must decide as a nation whether we want to live in a truly democratic society, or whether we want to reserve democracy for a privileged few. Are we suggesting, through the Stearns Amendment, that Native Americans, the only original citizens of this land, should not have the language assistance they may need to participate in the democratic process? That is not right, that is not fair, that is not just.

On July 3, civil rights leaders announced plans to hold a candlelight vigil at the United States Capitol until reauthorization legislation passes. In "A fight over voting"

On July 7, Bruce Gordon, President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued a memorandum indicating that the House would reconsider the measure on July 13. the memorandum includes a draft letter urging legislators to pass H.R. 9 without amendments weakening it. People for the American Way posted an online petition to the same effect.

July 8, 2006, The Cincinnati Post's Washington bureau chief Michael Collins quoted congressman Chabot, "There's no more fundamental right than the right to vote,'' the Cincinnati congressman said. "And really, the Voting Rights Act has been a key to making sure that we continue to protect the rights of all people to vote.''

As for the suggestion that all states should be included in the act, rather than the nine, Chabot explains that since election statutes are for the most part state laws, the federal government can step in only if there is a constitutional question involved. Since there is no documented pattern of such discrimination in the other 41 states, the Supreme Court probably would overturn that requirement, and possibly the entire law.

Both the NAACP and PFAW sponsored the Renew the Votings Rights Act Campaign, which also includes these groups with online resources about the Act.

Spencer Overton, author of Stealing Democracy, has an interesting fact sheet, abstracted from his book, on the Act.

Groups who publicly opposed renewal of the Act included American Renaissance, Pro-English, and EnglishFirst.org.