WASHINGTON — His voice steadily rising, Rep. John Lewis couldn’t hide his distress with the Supreme Court’s decision to strip a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
“They’re saying, in effect, that history cannot repeat itself,” said the Georgia Democrat who as a freedom rider and civil rights leader in the 1960s was severely beaten while marching for voting rights. “But I say come and walk in my shoes,” Lewis said, chopping the air with his finger while discussing the high court’s ruling Tuesday.
In a 5-4 ruling, the high court on Tuesday effectively negated a key requirement in the 1965 law that all or parts of 15 states with a history of racial discrimination get Justice Department approval before changing election laws. The court majority said the government can’t continue to rely on 40-year-old demographic data that don’t reflect changes in racial progress and society over the decades in deciding which states and local jurisdictions have to first get clearance from Washington.
“It’s a bad day, a sad day for the democratic process,” said Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Texas, whose state had been covered by the act.
“One of the worst days … in the history of this country,” echoed Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who chairs the 42-member Congressional Black Caucus.
Michigan Rep. John Conyers, who with 49 years in the House is the longest-serving black member of Congress, recalled arriving in Washington in January 1965 and begging House Speaker John McCormack to put him on the Judiciary Committee so he could help ensure the voting rights law’s passage. As a former chairman and now senior Democrat on the panel, he was resigned to having to do it again.
“We can rise to this challenge,” Conyers said, shaking his head. “We don’t have an alternative.”
“We don’t want to go back,” said Lewis, making reference to his own experience. “We want to go forward.”