09.10.13

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Commemorating the 16th Street Church Bombing in Birmingham September 10, 2013

Two weeks ago, thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.  That remarkable moment in this Nation’s history was a peaceful day of unity and we rightfully remember the inspiring words of Dr. King. 

We are reminded this week of just how quickly that hope and positive signs of progress were challenged by a stunning act of violence.  Just a few days after Dr. King inspired a nation with his dream for his four children, four other children in Birmingham were killed at their church because of the color of their skin.  On September 15, 1963, a bomb was planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were innocent victims of racial hatred.  The inhumanity of those who conspired and killed children in a church may seem unimaginable in our Nation today, but, as Colbert King of the Washington Post noted recently, “Before al-Qaeda, there was the Ku Klux Klan.”

We celebrate the significant strides we have made with determined efforts in forging a more just and equal America since the KKK’s reign of terror, and yet we cannot forget that these events occurred just days after the March on Washington.  It occurred in the lifetime of 88 of 100 members of this Senate body.  It is our recent history, not ancient history.

The tragic deaths of those four little girls, along with the other shining examples of bravery, patriotism and resolve during the Civil Rights movement, catalyzed passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  These laws helped to transform our Nation and ensure that our most basic promises to our citizens are more than just words on a page, honored only in their breach.

The inspiring possibilities described so eloquently by Dr. King, and the depravity and horror of the Birmingham church bombing just weeks later, reveal an important lesson about our history.  The path to progress in our Democracy is winding, and sometimes very, very difficult.  We know from our shared experience that we cannot be the Nation that we strive to be by setting the dial on autopilot and assuming that all will be well.  There are so many reminders of the winding path to progress, and recently we experienced a considerable detour.

Three months ago, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court held that the coverage provision of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.  Section 5, often called the “heart of the Voting rights Act,” provided a remedy for unconstitutional discrimination in voting by requiring jurisdictions with the worst histories of discrimination to “preclear” all voting changes before they could take effect.  The remedy is both necessary and important because it stops the discriminatory voting practice before our fellow Americans’ rights are violated.  By striking down the coverage provision for Section 5, the Supreme Court’s ruling leaves this vital protection unenforceable.

While certain barriers to participation have been eliminated, we continue to see discriminatory voting measures such as arbitrary registration rules, polling-place manipulation, voter purges, challenges or other devices to deny access to the ballot, as well as vote dilution tactics.  Since the Court’s recent decision in Shelby County, several states have already decided to impose new barriers to voting, thereby reversing the gains that we have made through the last five decades. 

These include measures taken by Texas, North Carolina, and Florida to undermine their citizens’ right to vote and to participate in our democracy.  But on this day, when we reflect on the contributions of our children to the cause of liberty, perhaps no story is more worth retelling than the story of the Prairie View A&M students.  It is a story that bridges the past with both the present and the future.  Students from that historically black university have been fighting for their voting rights for more than four decades now, and if not for the Voting Rights Act, many of these students would have been denied their fundamental right to vote. 

The history is well-documented in a recent Houston Chronicle article by Renée Lee.  I ask unanimous consent that it be included in the Record.  In the 1970s, the Justice Department filed an action against Waller County and its state officials for using a questionnaire to deny Prairie View students the right to vote.  In 1992, 19 students were indicted for improperly voting, which ultimately led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that authorized college students to register and vote in communities where they live while at school.  

In 2004, the NAACP and four Prairie View students filed a federal case after the county district attorney tried to enforce residency requirements that would keep students from voting.  A Section 5 enforcement suit was filed by civil rights organizations around the same time after county officials shortened the early voting period at the campus in violation of Section 5.  This effort to narrow student participation came at a time when a student leader sought elective office.  Testimony about this recent chapter at Prairie View A&M was submitted to Congress in support of the 2006 Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.  It was compelling evidence that voting discrimination persists in that community and that even a Supreme Court ruling was not sufficient protection.

Two years after the reauthorization of Section 5, in 2008, nearly 1,000 Prairie View students marched in protest for the lack of an early voting place on campus.  The county had reduced the number of early voting polling sites from six to one, requiring students to walk miles to the nearest polling location.  If you did not know the long and tortured history of the schemes to block Prairie View A&M voters from their constitutionally protected rights, moving a polling place may seem like merely a matter of administrative convenience, but in voting, both history and context matter.  The Justice Department under Attorney General Michael Mukasey ultimately entered into a consent decree with Waller County that required officials to restore three polling sites.  And now, the students from this historically black university are once again fighting to exercise their fundamental right to vote by demanding an accessible polling place.  The Prairie View A&M story illustrates that sometimes discrimination starts early, and that some officials are surprisingly persistent in their efforts to erect barriers in the path of our youngest voters.  The Voting Rights Act stands as a guardian against these schemes to discourage young voter participation.   

But now, following the Shelby County ruling, and with a college leader seeking elective office in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, local officials have borrowed the Prairie View A&M disenfranchisement playbook.  There, a party chairman challenged the eligibility of Montravius King from standing for office by claiming that Mr. King did not meet the residency requirement because he lived in a dorm.  The premise of this challenge is flatly contradicted by Supreme Court precedent and the decades of advocacy over Prairie View A&M students’ voter access.  Nevertheless, North Carolina local officials were initially able to disqualify Mr. King’s candidacy.  There were also indications that some in Elizabeth City, North Carolina intended to employ new voter challenge procedures in the state to prevent students from the historically black college from voting.  It is perhaps no wonder, then, that part of the officials’ plan also involved removing the polling place from the campus.  Last week, local election board reversed itself only after a huge public outcry, but these events reveal that some things have changed and some, unfortunately, have not.  I ask unanimous consent to include in the Record an article in the Washington Post by Mary Curtis, which documents the efforts by North Carolina’s state officials to infringe on the fundamental right to vote.

When President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, he declared that:  “Through this act, and its enforcement, an important instrument of freedom passes into the hands of millions of our citizens.”  We must remain vigilant and protect the rights of all Americans to exercise this fundamental right. 

The recent Supreme Court decision placed the burden on Congress to respond with a legislative fix.  It is therefore our duty and constitutional obligation to not waver from the path of greater political inclusion that we have set for ourselves and the Nation through our bipartisan support of the Voting Rights Act.

We must restore the vital protections that were weakened by the Supreme Court’s ruling.  We must provide additional remedies for states and counties, anywhere in the Nation, that not only have a history of discriminating against their voters, but continue to do so.  We must extend the reach of these protections to states that commit serious voting rights violations in the future.  We must amend the existing provisions of the Act to make those protections more effective.  And we must provide greater transparency for changes to voting procedures so that voters are made aware of these changes.  These are the kinds of bipartisan solutions that we should all be able to agree on. 

As we continue the fight to combat discrimination, we should remember the words of Dr. King.  We should remember the aspirations of students like Montravius King.  We should remember the contributions of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Congressional leader John Lewis.  And we should remember that those four girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, and who are being posthumously honored today with Congressional Gold Medals, were part of a movement that helped make America better, stronger and more just.  The way to truly honor them is not by words alone but through our actions and leadership.  While we commemorate the sacrifice of these four girls, our work does not end with this commemoration.  Our work is ahead of us and we must act together in a bipartisan manner to protect the fundamental right to vote for all Americans.  All of our children are depending on it.

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