Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1468: The Voting Rights Act at 50 and the Legal Defense Fund at 75

  The Voting Rights Act at 50; the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at 75: Landmark Law That Transformed America. I was one of four panelists at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D. C. On this special occasion. I had planned what I was going to say, however, I did not say what I had planned because the format was different than I expected. It was a question and answer session throughout that was streamed live on the Smithsonian’s web site. The session will also be airing on C-SPAN in August. The following is what I had planned to say.

  Faya Rose and I came to Selma in 1971. The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was just six years old. We expected it to be fully implemented in the five years we planned to stay in Selma. It is now 44 years later and there is still an intense ongoing struggle to fully implement the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. We greatly underestimated the opposition to voting rights.

  When we came to Selma, we immediately became cooperating attorneys with the Legal Defense Fund. People thought that we were receiving money, but we never received a penny. We did, however, receive very good information, excellent training and great assistance. LDF, as it is commonly called, had cooperating attorneys all over the country. It had helped conceive the Voting Rights Act and continues to help implement it in numerous ways.

  LDF was instrumental in the most intense struggle of our 44 year legal career. It was a matter of freedom or imprisonment. It was a matter of maintaining progress or moving backwards. Eight community organizers in Perry and Greene Counties were wrongfully charged with 212 counts of voter fraud by the United States Attorneys in the Southern District and Northern District of Alabama. LDF’s Deval Patrick, who later became Governor of Massachusetts, and Lani Guinier, who is now a law professor at Harvard Law School, were part of our team along with J.L. Chestnut, Jr., Faya Rose Toure, Howard Moore and others. When the fight was over, the final score was: the community organizers, 212; the U. S. Government, 0. It was a great victory.

  The heart of VRA was Section 5. It required preclearance of all voting changes before they were implemented. President Lyndon Johnson, the U.S. Congress and others, me included, greatly underestimated the depth of opposition to voting rights for African Americans. Section 5 had an initial term of seven years. But in seven years, there was not even a dent in the fortress denying the right to vote. VRA was extended for 10 years to end in 1982; then 25 years to end in 2007; then 25 more years to end in 2032. These extensions reveal difficulties in achieving full voting rights for African Americans. In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted Section 5 by striking down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act. Now, we are back at the beginning trying to get Congress to pass a new comprehensive Voting Rights Act.

  The odds against passage are great. In nearly two years the Republican run Congress has not even brought “weak as water” Voting Rights bill up in committee. Now, a strong voting rights bill has been filed in the Congress. The odds against passage are great but not nearly as great as in 1965 when one side had everything: all the laws and lawmen; all the guns and gunmen; all the offices and office holders; all the banks and money; all the businesses and jobs; all the voters and votes; all the newspapers, radios and television; everything. The other side had virtually nothing, however, they took marching feet, singing songs and praying prayers and wrought a great victory. The tree of that victory is the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The fruit of that tree are the many voters and elected officials the voting rights tree produced.

  The Voting Rights Act made a powerful difference for Black, Brown and others who had been left out. It infused a measure of democracy in a widely proclaimed but undemocratic country. It was a huge step toward the more perfect union the founding fathers spoke of in the Declaration of Independence. As a result of the Voting Rights Act, there are millions of Black and Brown registered voters, over ten thousand Black and Brown elected officials and even a President of African American heritage. Many Whites, especially women, have been elected that would not have been except for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The VRA made a powerful difference even though the victory was incomplete.

  The heart of the reason the fight for voting rights has been so long and hard is White supremacy. The foundation of slavery was economic, however, the web that held it together and reached beyond slavery was White supremacy. White supremacy continued long after slavery officially ended. It was euphemistically called Jim Crow and segregation for 100 years. It continued even after Jim Crow and segregation officially ended in the 1960s with laws prohibiting racial discrimination in public transportation, public accommodations, employment, and voting. The web of White supremacy still entangles us today. We cannot even mention the words White supremacy or racism without drawing strong attacks. Until we can truly discuss slavery, White supremacy and their legacies, we cannot begin to understand or correct the problem. We must dig down to the roots.

  The Voting Rights Act at 50 is hobbled by a broken heart. The Legal Defense Fund at 75 is still going strong, trying to mend the broken heart.

EPILOGUE – Some legislation has little impact on our lives. A few pieces of legislation have great impact. Every now and then a piece of legislation has super impact. The 1965 Voting Rights Act has had a super impact. But there is still room for greater impact.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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