By: Marc H. Morial
National Urban League
In its own tragic, destructive way, Hurricane Katrina illuminated some fundamental strengths of the American people—such as their resiliency in the face of hardship and their willingness to respond quickly and generously to those in harm's way.
It's fitting then, by its dispersal of huge number of voters from their home districts in the Deep South, that the great storm should also have underscored another great characteristic of the American nation: the expansion of democracy that's occurred in the past half-century thanks to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The chief achievement of that movement—the chief instrument of democracy's expansion—has been the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This week the Congress took another step in its consideration whether to re-authorize not the full Act, but six of its provisions which are due to expire in 2007. The House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Constitution, heard from numerous witnesses on the effectiveness of the law.
They included Ted Shaw, Director-Counsel and President of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Jack Kemp, the former Republican Congressman and Secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Joe Rogers, Commissioner of the National Voting Rights Commission and former Lieutenant Governor of Colorado, and Ann Marie Tallman, President and Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
I also spoke to the Committee. I told them that the importance and necessity of the Voting Rights Act can't be overstated.
In stark numerical terms, it's responsible for the significant growth in black elected officeholders in America—from no more than 300 in the entire country in 1964, the year before President Johnson signed the Act into law, to more than 9,100 occupying offices at every level of government, including one Senator and 42 members of the House.
But its importance is far greater than a mere recounting of numbers can convey.
As a New Orleanian whose father, Ernest "Dutch" Morial, was the first African American to serve as Mayor of New Orleans, and as one who himself held political office—first in the state legislature and then as a two–term mayor of New Orleans—I saw and benefited from the tremendous impact of the Voting Rights Act. There's no doubt that without it neither my father nor I nor the dozens of other black officeholders in Louisiana would have been able to serve the city and state we loved so much.
To be clear: expanding the opportunity to vote in America has always been intended to foster far more than ensuring that minority voters have a voice or that African American politicians get elected.
By opening up the political process, the Voting Rights Act has enriched the discussion of politics in America and made available a broader pool of political talent—improving the quality of representation for all voters.
Some have suggested that the six provisions of the Act under review are no longer needed.
They are mistaken. The great strides in the expansion of democracy America has achieved have come only because the laws have been in place. Unfortunately, it's still a fact that across the country African Americans and other people of color continue to face obstacles to exercising their full voting rights. That is why the Congress must renew the Voting Rights Act—with all of its special provisions intact.
This is especially true of Section 5 of the Act—the so-called pre-clearance requirement.
For example, because of Louisiana's long and tragic history of discriminatory voting practices, it is one of the states required by Section 5 to obtain pre-clearance—or prior approval—of any proposed changes in its election laws or procedures from the federal Department of Justice.
It's starkly revealing that since 1965 not one Louisiana House of Representatives plan submitted to the Justice Department has passed muster on the first review. Every one in the last forty years has been found—by Attorneys General of both Republican and Democratic administrations—to be in violation in some fashion of the right of American citizens to vote regardless of race, color, or membership in a language-minority group.
There is no question that without the Act's pre-clearance requirement and other special provisions, discriminatory voting plans would re-appear throughout the country—and democracy itself would take a giant step backward.
Ensuring that the Voting Rights Act continues to safeguard the voting rights of Americans has become even more important now that Hurricane Katrina has displaced hundreds of thousands of people of color from their communities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama for months to come.
These evacuees must continue to have full voting rights in their home voting districts so that they can have a voice in the rebuilding of their communities—and so that democracy in all its dimensions continues to be a part of the reconstruction of the South and of America itself.
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