Last weekend, I joined The Faith and Politics Institute on their annual Congressional Civil Rights pilgrimage to Alabama. I’ve taken this trip several times, but its significance this year could not be more poignant. While we have come a long way and much progress has been made, the many battles fought 48 years ago in Selma are still raging, but this time we’re not fighting in the streets, we’re fighting in the courts.
Last week, some of my colleagues and I took that fight to the steps of the Supreme Court to rally in support of the most effective Civil Rights legislation ever enacted by Congress, The Voting Rights Act.
The heart of that legislation, Section 5, requires states with a history of voter suppression to first go through the Justice Department before making changes to their voting procedures. This system ensures that access to voting is kept intact and that potential discrimination is caught before getting a chance to take hold.
The case at hand, Shelby County vs. Holder, is part of a toolbox of tactics being used to threaten voting rights in this country. We’re no longer in the days that I vividly remember of Jim Crow or the poll tax, but voter disenfranchisement is still haunting us. This time around, it comes in the form of same day registration restrictions, racially motivated voter ID laws, and the cost of waiting in line for hour after hour just to vote. We may be 48 years beyond bloodied protesters, but we have yet to conquer the discrimination running rampant in the United States.
On the pilgrimage, we returned to the now-sacred places of the Civil Rights Movement, to the bridge where my colleague, great friend, and freedom fighter Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was brutally beaten. We met the brave foot soldiers, now elderly, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Their seeking liberty and justice for all was a great sacrifice, and we must honor it.
To honor their courage, we must stand united on our fundamental democratic rights. We cannot allow our essential democratic expression to be violated. Even during the first moments of hearing oral arguments, Justice Scalia categorized the Voting Rights Act as “racial entitlement.” We needed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and we certainly need it now.
We need it so badly that it has been reaffirmed four times, most recently in 2006. Congress underwent an exhaustive review of the VRA which lasted almost a year, included 21 hearings, testimony from over 90 witnesses, and over 15,000 pages of evidence. In a rare bi-partisan moment, Congress came to a nearly unanimous decision that protections are still needed to preserve the voting rights of all Americans, and voted 390-33 to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. We voted to uphold the VRA, but it was not a given, it was an uphill battle.
What’s deeply troubling about this ongoing struggle to reaffirm equal access to voting is that we encourage and support democracy and democratic movements all around the world, yet here in our own country, these same rights are being eroded each and every day. I was honored to stand in both South Africa and Nigeria as an election monitor, and I have seen the power of an empowered electorate. We must take those lessons to heart and not take our rights for granted.
Simply, voting is the heart and soul of our democracy, and we must defend it; we cannot go back. As our great Drum Major for justice, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Voting is the foundation stone for political action." Our right to vote is the bedrock of democracy. Just as those brave men and women would not bow to the violence that day in Selma, we will not bow to today’s discrimination. These are our rights, which we intend to uphold.
This blog is cross-posted from The Hill. Barbara Lee serves on the House Appropriations and Budget committees.
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