Congressional Black Caucusby Representative G. K. Butterfield
Posted on 2015-02-02
BUTTERFIELD. I thank the gentleman for yielding.
[[Page H688]] The Congressional Black Caucus is delighted to come to the floor this evening to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
At the end of slavery, Mr. Speaker, in 1865, which was 150 years ago, the State of North Carolina had a slave population of 331,000 slaves. After the passage of the 13th Amendment and ratification of it by 27 States, these slaves became free. They became American citizens, and males 21 years old or older would soon be entitled to vote.
Among those 331,000 slaves gaining freedom, 128,000 of them resided in my congressional district. In some of the counties, the Black population exceeded the White population.
In 1870, African American citizens gained the right to vote by the enactment of the 15th Amendment. For the next 30 years, Mr. Speaker, African American men voted in large numbers and became a political force in State politics.
Four African Americans were elected to Congress in North Carolina, eight in South Carolina, three in Alabama, and one each in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Virginia, and Louisiana. Many more were elected to State and local office.
In 1900, after KKK violence and lynchings had not deterred Black political participation, most Southern States passed disfranchisement laws requiring a literacy test and the payment of a poll tax. These laws had the intent and effect of disenfranchising Black people from voting, and it worked. For the next half century, African Americans were effectively denied the right to vote with a few exceptions.
Following his 1964 acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., approached President Lyndon Johnson about advocating for a strong voting rights law that would enforce the 15th Amendment. President Johnson was uncomfortable in advancing the idea of a voting rights law, which greatly disappointed Dr. King. Dr. King was motivated to launch the Selma voting rights movement.
On March 7, 1965, under the leadership of Dr. King, John Lewis, and others, Black residents of Selma attempted to march from Brown Chapel Church to the Alabama State capital to demand a voting rights law.
As they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were brutalized, and they were terrorized by State police and forced to retreat. We now refer to this confrontation as ``Bloody Sunday.'' Two days later, the marchers again began their journey to Montgomery, but as they crossed the bridge and saw the strong police presence, they turned around and returned to the church. At this point, President Johnson was outraged with Governor George Wallace for preventing the march. Johnson telephoned Wallace to demand that the marchers walk to Montgomery without incident.
Three weeks later, on March 21, 1965, Dr. King persuaded thousands of Black and White to come to Selma to participate in the march. The march proceeded without incident. Fifty thousand participated.
Following the March, a White marcher, Mrs. Viola Liuzzo from Detroit, was murdered while transporting marchers back to Selma. Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed by police during a Selma protest in February 1965. Saddened by these murders, President Johnson reconsidered his unwillingness to promote voting rights legislation. He went on national television on March 15 and announced that he would support a voting rights bill.
Despite the Southern filibuster, the Voting Rights Act was enacted into law on August 6, 1965. This important law has changed the political landscape for African American communities. It bans the use of literacy tests. It gives minority communities the right to litigate discriminatory election schemes that dilute their vote.
The act provides for a section 5 that requires certain jurisdictions with discriminatory histories to preclear election law changes with the Attorney General. To our great dismay, on June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court made section 5 unenforceable because the data used to determine covered jurisdictions is outdated, according to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has now called on Congress to modify the formula.
To this day, Mr. Speaker, our Republican colleagues have refused to allow the bipartisan VRA amendment bill to be voted upon. In fact, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Goodlatte, announced that he has no intention to legislate a modification to the formula, and so the effect of not having section 5 is to allow jurisdictions to pass discriminatory election laws with impunity and without oversight.
The Voting Rights Act has enabled African American communities to elect hundreds of Black elected officials. We successfully litigated dozens and dozens of cases. Many of my colleagues were elected because enforcement of the Voting Rights Act forced--forced--States to draw congressional districts where Black communities are not submerged and their vote diluted.
Mr. Speaker, this story must be understood by every American citizen. The right to vote for African Americans was obtained by blood, sweat, and tears; and we are determined--the Congressional Black Caucus is determined--to continue this fight into 2016 and beyond.
Mr. Payne, thank you very much for yielding time.