Passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965 was a proud moment in U.S. history. For the first time, millions of African Americans living in the Deep South, who had been excluded from fully participating in the political process for 200 years, were finally enfranchised. The battle to secure those rights cost many lives of both blacks and whites. So why is it that some black leaders have taken the occasion of the 40th anniversary of this seminal event to engage in hate speech?
On Saturday, thousands of activists gathered in Atlanta to commemorate the signing of the Voting Rights Act. Speakers at the rally included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.; and entertainers Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory and Greg Mathis, a Michigan Superior Court judge who stars in his own TV series. But instead of celebrating the triumph of this great law, many -- if not most -- of the speakers used the occasion to try to scare African Americans into thinking the Republicans in Congress and President Bush were about to rescind the protections the Act guarantees.
There was much talk of "stolen" elections. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said, "The last two elections were stolen. They were stolen and so we will not rest until we reclaim our democracy, and this is what today is all about." Judge Mathis referred to the 2000 elections as "the biggest election crime in history." He told the enthusiastic crowd that the "thieves" in the Republican Party "need to be locked up." Harry Belafonte warned, "We must stand vigilant, as there are those among us who would steal our liberty and steal our souls."
Belafonte referred to blacks serving in the Bush administration as "black tyrants," and went even farther in an interview with Marc Morano of CNSNews.com. "Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich," Belafonte told Morano, an anti-Semitic canard meant to smear as neo-Nazi both the Bush administration and the African Americans who serve in it.
You'd think by the vicious rhetoric at the march that President Bush was trying to revoke the Act. Nothing of the sort is true. Most sections of the landmark legislation are permanent, including the ban on literacy tests, once a favorite method to keep qualified black voters from exercising their right to vote. Certain provisions of the Act -- most notably Section 5, which requires covered jurisdictions to submit even the most minor changes in voting procedures to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance -- will expire in 2007, but they were always meant to be temporary. Indeed, these provisions might have been declared unconstitutional, despite the incredible recalcitrance of Southern politicians in 1965, but for the promise that they would expire after a time.
Congress should drop the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act and another section enacted in 1975 requiring non-English ballots to be provided in some jurisdictions. The pre-clearance provision makes little sense today. There is no evidence that jurisdictions covered by Section 5 -- many of them now governed by African-American politicians -- would try to disenfranchise black voters.
And non-English ballots were a bad idea in 1975 and an even worse one today. The Hispanic population in 1975 was predominantly U.S.-born and English-speaking. Today, there are virtually no U.S.-born Hispanics or other minorities who do not speak, read and write English. Although an increasing proportion of the Hispanic population is foreign-born -- about half of adults in this group -- English proficiency is and should remain a requirement for citizenship. As for the relatively small number of eligible voters who can't read an English ballot well enough to make an informed decision, letting such voters bring someone into the ballot booth to assist them would be far more efficient than printing up millions of ballots in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and other languages.
The irony is that no prominent Republican politician is even suggesting that Section 5 or the bilingual ballot provisions of the Voting Rights Act not be extended when they expire in 2007. To the contrary, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Tom Delay and Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner want these provisions extended another 25 years. But that won't stop some demagogues from spewing hate and spreading lies.