By U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson
By 1965, the civil rights community had developed concerted efforts to break the grip of state voter disfranchisement.
The murder of voting-rights activists in Philadelphia, Mississippi, gained national attention, along with numerous other acts of violence and terrorism.
Finally, the unprovoked attack on March 7, 1965, by state troopers on Congressman John Lewis, the late Rev. Hosea Williams and other peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, en route to the state capitol in Montgomery, persuaded the President and Congress to overcome Southern legislators’ resistance to effective voting rights legislation.
At that time, President Lyndon Baines Johnson issued a call for a strong voting rights law and hearings began soon thereafter on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Congress determined that the existing federal anti-discrimination laws were not sufficient to overcome the resistance by state officials to enforcement of the 15th Amendment.
The legislative hearings brought to light that efforts by the Department of Justice to have discriminatory election practices eliminated by litigation on a case-by-case basis had been unsuccessful in opening up the registration process.
The hearings further proved that as soon as one discriminatory practice or procedure was proven to be unconstitutional and enjoined, a new one would be substituted in its place and litigation would have to commence anew.
President Johnson signed The Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, 1965. This legislation temporarily suspected literacy tests, and provided for the appointment of federal examiners (with the power to register qualified citizens to vote), in those jurisdiction that were “covered’ according to a formula provided in the statute.
In addition, Section 5 of the Act covered jurisdictions that were required to obtain “pre-clearance” for new voting practices and procedures from either the District Court for the District of Columbia or the United States Attorney General. Section 2 of the Act, which closely followed the language of the 15th Amendment, applied a nationwide prohibition of denial or abridgment of the right to vote on account of race or color.
The Voting Rights Act, adopted initially in 1965 and extended in 1970, 1975, and 1982 is generally considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by the United States Congress.
The Act codifies and effectuates the 15th Amendment’s permanent guarantee that, throughout the nation, no person shall be denied the right to vote on account of race or color. In addition, the Act contains several special provisions that impose even more stringent requirements on “covered” jurisdictions in certain areas of the country.
Sadly, as we celebrate the 37th Anniversary of this landmark civil rights legislation, America is in need for Congress to make electoral reform its top priority.
Constitutionally-mandated equal protection of the laws and the Voting Rights Act require an electoral system in which all Americans are able to register as voters, remain on the rolls once registered and vote free from harassment. Ballots must not be misleading, and every vote must count.
In the 2000 election, Florida was not the only state where American citizens were denied the full exercise of their constitutional franchise. It happened all across this nation. Moreover, most of those excluded from democracy were Americans of color.
As such, election reform is the number one legislative priority for the Congressional Black Caucus. We will not be silenced until Congress answers the call for election reform.
This is not a Black, White, or Brown issue. It is an American issue. It is a red, white and blue issue. It should be of great concern to each of us if any one of us is improperly denied access to the ballot box or if every ballot cast is not counted. The survival of our democracy depends on the accuracy and integrity of our election system.
Thousands of men and women fought for and won their right to vote after decades in which they had been deprived of a voice in our democracy. Thousands of brave African Americans marched and protested to the winning of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and as we celebrate the 37th Anniversary of this landmark legislation, Congress must act immediately to ensure that every American has the right to vote and to have their vote counted. What happened in Florida and around the country must not be allowed to ever happen again.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernie Johnson represents the 30th Congressional District of Texas and serves as Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.