Black Leaders Credited with Forcing Congress to Act on Voting Rights Law
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 7/26/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – President George W. Bush is expected to sign into law Thursday an extension of the Voting Rights Act that overwhelmingly passed Congress after civil rights leaders and members of the Congressional Black Caucus mobilized African-Americans and their supporters and kept the issue before the public.
“They made it the centerpiece. They get the credit for raising the issue and keeping it in the public marketplace,” says Thomas N. Todd, a civil rights lawyer who is the former president of the Chicago chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Operation PUSH.
“What I’m worried about with these high profile media issues is that they gloss over the real problems we are facing.”
At this point in history, many feel passage of the Voting Rights Act extension was one of the civil rights community’s finest hour. Civil Rights leaders and Black members of Congress, jointly and separately, rallied Blacks across the nation. They organized letter-writing campaigns, visits to Capitol Hill and challenged the Republican leadership in the House not to cave into what Jesse Jackson called modern-day Confederates. It was because of that “street heat” that the measure passed the House with only 33 dissenters and sailed through the Senate 98-0.
“The civil rights community was impressive, but it was mostly the Black congressional leaders that deserves the credit,” says Lorenzo Morris, chairman of the political science department at Howard University.
“The organizational activities and influence certainly makes way for the same kind of activism on non-civil rights issues, such as health care and jobs.”
Todd says leaders and activists must continue to pressure the Department of Justice to enforce the pre-clearance mandates. Even Georgia’s mandatory voter identification recently stricken by federal court had been approved by the Justice Department, he points out.
Documents obtained by the Boston Globe provide some insight into the Justice Department’s personnel.
The Bush administration has been “filling the permanent ranks with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights,” according to the Globe.
Only 42 percent of the lawyers hired since 2002, after Attorney General John Ashcroft started giving political appointees more power in the appointment process, Just two years earlier, 77 percent of hirees had civil rights experience.
In the key areas – voting rights, employment litigation and appellate sections – only 19 of 45 lawyers hired since 2003 in those sections were experienced civil rights lawyers. And of the 19, almost half – nine – gained their experience while defending employers against discrimination suits or fighting against race-conscious policies and programs.
Clearly, getting voting legislation extended will be useless if the Justice Department fails to enforce laws on the books.
Toni-Michelle Travis, a University of California political science professor, says Black lawmakers aren’t receiving enough credit for their roles in getting the Voting Rights Act extended.
“The traditional civil rights organizations are important, but to bring this to the forefront, it took the CBC. It is time now to look at the struggle of the CBC. This has been a testament to their strength,” Travis says.
“We’ve seen different leaders carrying out certain roles throughout Black political history. It will be interesting to see how the CBC does.”
After a string of congressional hearings that proved the voting legislation is still needed, Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, empowered Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to negotiate with Republican leaders – including Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner – for a bill with no amendments.
And Watt wasn’t alone in pushing for a clean bill.
Hilary Shelton, executive director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, said that early on, behind the scenes, as the NAACP’s chief lobbyist, he was involved in helping Watt push the bill before it was drafted and introduced.
“We’ve all worked together on this from the very beginning. We’d been conferencing with Mel Watt to make sure we move forward,” says Shelton.
“Then, we made it to the point where we thought the bill was going to be voted on.”
The dynamics shifted on June 21. The U.S. House of Representatives delayed passage of the renewal as a small group of White Southern lawmakers bent on passing the act only with amendments that would have weakened the legislation.
Earlier, in an unusual show of bi-partisanship, Republican and Democratic leaders had held a press conference vowing to extend expiring sections of the Voting Rights Act. But when a Southern bloc rebelled, it appeared for a while that House leaders might cave in to the dissidents.
That’s when Black lawmakers and civil rights leaders shifted into another gear. Declaring a “crisis in voting rights,” a coalition of Black groups pledged to hold a vigil in front of the House of Representatives until the legislation was passed. After two vigils, the measure was passed in the House 390-33. Last week, it passed the Senate 98-0.
“There were a number of initiatives, petitions and letter-writing campaigns across the nation. I participated in every one that came across my e-mail and solicited others to do so,” says Kathie Golden, executive director of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.
“The Black Caucus didn’t do this by themselves. I mean, I’m sure they had some impact. But, I don’t think the CBC was as vocal or aggressive in the media or in public as they should have been. And this would have been an ideal issue to get voters or potential voters ready for the elections and I don’t think they took advantage of it.”
However, they did rise to the occasion and the “Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization Amendments Act” is scheduled to be signed by Bush Thursday on the White House South Lawn.
“The activism that took place on the Hill allowed civil rights groups to form a civic network,” says University of Maryland Political Scientist Ron Walters.
“I was in some of those meetings. They did a yeoman’s job.”
Golden says she hopes activists, voters and political and social groups will remain excited as they were about voting rights and transfer to other issues such as Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
“There’s so many other things we need to maintain this level of community around – minimum wage, health care, the AIDS crisis,” says Shelton of the NAACP.
“It’s our responsibility to at least try to hold together a coalition along these lines.”