getting his skull fractured in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.
Among the witnesses will be 13-term Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement that was the catalyst for the Voting Rights Act when it was first passed in 1965. Lewis was beaten by police and Ku Klux Klansmen and arrested repeatedly during protests against segregation. One of the Freedom Riders of 1961 that sought to desegregate buses, he also headed up the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee's Freedom Summer dedicated to registering black voters in Mississippi the summer of 1964.
The other scheduled witness is Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin who, as House Judiciary Committee chairman, guided the overwhelmingly approved reauthorization of the act in 2006. So far, according to a spokesperson, nobody from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has been scheduled to testify.
In one of the most damnable decisions in years, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Shelby County v. Holder to gut the Voting Rights Act by striking down the formula in Section 4 that governs which state and local jurisdictions must clear changes in their voting laws with the Justice Department in advance because of a history of past discrimination against minority voters. The court ruled that the Section 4 designations were obsolete. Because of the decision, the burden of proof for proving changes will not discriminate has shifted from the covered jurisdictions to the Justice Department. That will hinder efforts to block changes that harm minorities.
Some states, notably Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina began moving ahead with voter-law changes within 24 hours of the court's ruling. In the case of Texas, a voter I.D. law already rejected for being discriminatory against people of color, especially Latinos, will now go into effect. Immediately after the court's decision, Rep. Lewis said:
I was disappointed, because I think what the court did today is stab the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart. It is a major setback. We may not have people being beaten today. Maybe they’re not being denied the right to participate or to register to vote. They’re not being chased by police dogs or trampled by horses. But in the 11 states of the Old Confederacy, and even in some of the states outside of the South, there’s been a systematic, deliberate attempt to take us back to another period. And these men that voted to strip the Voting Rights Act of its power, they never stood in unmovable lines. They never had to pass a so-called literacy test. It took us almost a hundred years to get where we are today. So will it take another hundred years to fix it, to change it?Lewis, who had his skull fractured by a police nightstick in one '60s civil rights demonstration, has said he is “deeply concerned that Congress will not have the will to fix what the Supreme Court has broken.” Given the gridlock on so many other issues that are less controversial and given the advantage to Republicans that the Shelby ruling provides, he may well be right. Nonetheless, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has suggested that new legislation should be named after the guy who was nearly killed more than once in the civil rights struggle: the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
In the absence of new legislation, voter-rights advocates are not standing still but seeking ways to use provisions of Sections 2 and 3 of the act to repair at least some of the damage done by the court.