On July 20 2006, I had the privilege of witnessing the historic vote of the U.S. Senate for the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act, which passed 98 to 0. It is rare but gratifying to find such unanimous and bipartisan agreement, given our nation’s long struggle to achieve equality.
There has never been more consistent popular support for equal access to the ballot. On August 15, 2005, 40 years after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act, tens of thousands of Americans marched and rallied in sweltering Atlanta heat to demonstrate their support for reauthorizing the most important and successful civil rights legislation of the 20th century.
It was only 44 years ago that Congress passed the monumental Voting Rights Act (VRA). This helped change the course of history for civil rights and gave hope for a better tomorrow for all citizens.
Many nameless, faceless soldiers of the movement – like Cotton Reader, James Orange and Mrs. Boynton – made grave sacrifices in their perseverance to attain the right to vote. Our country had endured a brutal and prolonged period of racial disfranchisement from 1877 until that very year, 1965. We made the sacrifices to help our nation take a step towards a brighter future. The Voting Rights Act was signed by President Johnson, but it was born out of the crucible of Bloody Sunday in Selma.
In 1965, we took a big step toward achieving equality for all Americans. We cannot risk losing the tools that we need to help finish the unfinished business that lies ahead.
Section Five of the VRA is the key for political enfranchisement for all Americans. On April 29th the U.S. Supreme Court will review the validity of this critical aspect of the VRA. Section 5 requires that states with a history of racial discrimination seek Justice Department approval before implementing any changes to their election processes.
It is instructive that the highest law enforcement officials in many states covered by Section 5 have expressed their desire to see its protections continued. I pray that the Supreme Court comes together as Congress was able to, and upholds the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
We must preserve our tools of progress, such as Section 5, to build up on the great democratic tradition and work on establishing a “more perfect union” as our founding fathers had envisioned.
Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.