Leaders Toast Voting Rights Victory but Worry about getting Toasted
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 8/1/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, standing behind a wooden podium at a hotel just blocks from the White House, offered a toast. Holding high in the air a half-filled glass of red wine,“We had the commitment, we had the expertise, we had the drive and we had the optimism of the most wonderful civil rights coalition, men and women right here in this room.” he said, smiling broadly as the racially-mixed audience cheerfully applauded.
“We also had an incredible team of congressional leaders who were willing to spend hours mastering the substance of these issues and working the politics…And it worked, better than we could possibly have imagined.”
Everyone in the chandeliered parlor of the Capitol Hilton Hotel had something to celebrate. The bi-partisan bill to reauthorize key sections of the Voting Rights Act for 25 more years had finally been signed by President Bush after months of anticipation and struggle.
Just as there were cheers on this night, there were also pervasive fears, a poignant reminder that, in the Shakespearian words etched above an old entrance to the National Archives a few blocks away on Pennsylvania Avenue, what is past is prologue.
“Remember, friends, that where we are today is not complete,” Johnnie Rebecca Carr, the 95-year-old best friend and former classmate of the late Rosa Parks, told the gathering.
“The thing that we have just gone through today – the signing – that’s not the end. That’s just a part of it,” explained Carr, president of the Montgomery Improvement Association that sponsored the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for the past 39 years.
She concluded, “So we’re going to continue to struggle. We still have work to do. Because we want to see our community and our world [become] America, the real America that we get up and sing about. We want it to be the America that it should be.”
That America should have a Voting Rights Act that is not only signed, but enforced, says civil rights leaders, who partied, but vowed to hold Bush to the promise that he made in his signing speech: “Today, we renew a bill that helped to bring a community on the margins into the life of American democracy. My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court,” the president said to loud applause.
People For The American Way President Ralph Neas has his doubts. In a statement released only minutes after the White House signing ceremony on the South Lawn, Neas said: “He [Bush] owes it to all Americans to ensure that the Voting Rights Act is enforced. Unfortunately, that is not the record of this administration – by a long shot.”
In a recent report, the PFAW noted that the Bush Justice Department entered the Ohio presidential voting controversy in 2004 on the wrong side, its backing of a redistricting plans in Texas that reduced the political power of people of color and the administration’s approval of a voter identification law in Georgia that a federal court has now ruled unconstitutional.
Such perceived lack of commitment has led to a “mass exodus of experienced career attorneys” from the Civil Rights Division, the report states.
“In the Voting Section alone, more than 20 attorneys, representing about two-thirds of the lawyers in the section, have left the section in the last few years – over a dozen in the last 15 months alone. Included in this talent drain were the chief of the section, three deputy chiefs, and many experienced trial lawyers, representing almost 150 years of cumulative Justice Department civil rights enforcement experience. In the place of these experienced litigators and investigators, this administration has all too often hired inexperienced ideologues, virtually none of which have any civil rights or voting rights experience,” the report observed.
It continued, “His administration’s well-documented and unprecedented politicization of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has dramatically undermined voting rights enforcement. The administration has turned a blind eye to voter suppression tactics moving in states across the country – photo identification provisions, citizenship requirements, and provisional ballots. Voter suppression and intimidation continue to be a problem and continue to disenfranchise voters. But the Bush administration still pretends that discrimination is not a major issue for millions of Americans,” Neas stated after the signing.
“You have to notice that there’s been a slight change in their attitude,” says NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who has been among the sharpest critics of Bush’s record.
“The president came to the NAACP convention. He early on loudly endorsed the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. He gave a speech at the signing ceremony where he promised to enforce it, which is a matter of real concern to the civil rights community. If they’re not enforcing the existing law, so why should we think they will enforce the renewal of the law? I think we’re getting some mixed signals, but if indeed there’s a change, however slight, we need to take advantage of it.”
Others say leaders must do much more than hope.
“One thing we’re trying to do is make the Senate have an oversight hearing so we can blow it out of the water to really find out why the Justice Department has not been enforcing the Voting Rights Act. We think that is absolutely critical,” says Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.
Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the Council of Negro Women, said: “The president has said that he will enforce it. So we’ll have to hold him to that.”
In fact, many say the civil rights community believe that’s their next challenge.
“It’s significant that the president said they would defend it in court because it’s going to be challenged, I’m afraid,” said Rev. Joseph Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“But enforcement, that’s our next plateau.”
Hilary Shelton, the NAACP Washington bureau chief, says the enforcement problem has already been documented.
“We have created a record that very clearly shows that enforcement falls well short of where it needs to be,” Shelton says.
“Of course, now we need to see that all that information is introduced into the record for the House and Senate, making sure that the oversight goes on with the Judiciary Committees and indeed pressure is put on the Justice Department to fully enforce the law for all American people.”
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Mel Watt (D-S.C.), worries that Black people might have been exploited as a backdrop to a well-orchestrated photo opportunity.
“I think we’re dealing with the same George Bush that’s been in the White House throughout the time he’s been president,” Watt said shortly after the signing ceremony.
“On some issues, we work together. But on most issues we’re not able to work together because of philosophical differences. Our challenge is to not let those things that we differ with the president on impede our ability to work with the things that we do agree with him on and hope that the president feels the same way.”