Voting Rights Act, Immigration Reform on the Agenda for 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

Race relations problems in the United States were brought to the attention of the nation, and the world, by the massive March on Washington, Sept. 6, 1963. As evidenced by the signs held by the marchers, some of these problems are in the field of housing, voting, schooling and employment. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy said, "An awful lot has been accomplished. But you have to look at this in context - an awful lot still remains to be done."
National Journal
Rebecca Kaplan
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Rebecca Kaplan
Aug. 22, 2013, 1:34 p.m.

For black and His­pan­ic lead­ers, the 50th an­niversary of the March on Wash­ing­ton of­fers not only a chance to com­mem­or­ate the civil-rights move­ment, but also an op­por­tun­ity to make a high-pro­file push for some of their top pub­lic-policy pri­or­it­ies.

Mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, who were already fight­ing re­strict­ive voter-ID laws in sev­er­al states, took an­oth­er hit earli­er this year when the Su­preme Court gut­ted part of the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965. Mean­while, ad­voc­ates for com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form that in­cludes a path to cit­izen­ship have spent the sum­mer ur­ging Re­pub­lic­ans to join their cause, but they re­main largely at the mercy of the GOP.

Both com­munit­ies see the themes of the 1963 march — and the call for equal rights and jobs me­mori­al­ized in Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr.’s his­tor­ic “I Have a Dream” speech — as ap­plic­able to the battles they are fight­ing today.

“What you’ll hear is people ar­tic­u­lat­ing a na­tion­al agenda of how we can move both eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al em­power­ment for­ward,” said Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., whose state sparked the Su­preme Court case over the Vot­ing Rights Act. “We owe it to the leg­acy of those free­dom fight­ers to con­tin­ue to make strides for­ward, not just on the polit­ic­al front, but on the eco­nom­ic front as well.”

Al­though this week­end’s march is cel­eb­rat­ing an event from 50 years ago, par­ti­cipants are por­tray­ing it as the chance to re­new the civil-rights move­ment with a fo­cus on both vot­ing rights and eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity. Reps. Mar­cia Fudge, D-Ohio, chair­wo­man of the CBC, and John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil-rights icon, will be among those speak­ing.

“While it is a cel­eb­ra­tion of the mile­stones that we’ve ac­com­plished, the many goals that we’ve ac­com­plished, at the same time it’s a time to guard what we have ac­com­plished,” said Rep. Eli­jah Cum­mings, D-Md. “We’re talk­ing about ba­sic rights, we’re talk­ing about people try­ing to live the very best lives that we can, we’re talk­ing about equal­ity and equity, and I think that, in a way, it’s what Dr. King talked about.”

Cum­mings said it would be “polit­ic­al mal­prac­tice” to omit the Vot­ing Rights Act as a cent­ral top­ic of the week­end’s events. The speak­ers will ad­dress the broad im­port­ance of the law, he said, but might also call upon spe­cif­ic mem­bers — like House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio — to take ac­tion.

In June, the Su­preme Court ruled un­con­sti­tu­tion­al the for­mula that de­term­ined that nine, mostly South­ern states must seek ad­vance ap­prov­al from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment be­fore chan­ging their elec­tion laws. That for­mula, the Court said, was out of date, and without it, the sec­tion of the law man­dat­ing that states seek pre­clear­ance loses its teeth.

The Su­preme Court left the law in Con­gress’s hands, say­ing it could still seek to over­see those states by writ­ing a new for­mula, but law­makers have taken only pre­lim­in­ary steps to do so. In June, the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and the House Ju­di­ciary’s Con­sti­tu­tion and Civil Justice Sub­com­mit­tee held hear­ings on the Su­preme Court de­cision. Only Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chair­man of the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, has stressed the im­port­ance of quick ac­tion to re­store the full force of the law.

For now, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has shouldered most of the work of in­di­vidu­ally chal­len­ging state laws they find to be dis­crim­in­at­ory. On Thursday, the Justice De­part­ment filed a law­suit chal­len­ging Texas’s new voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion law. DOJ is also join­ing an ad­di­tion­al suit over the state’s re­dis­trict­ing laws.

Mean­while, the pace of work on im­mig­ra­tion re­form has slowed sig­ni­fic­antly since the Sen­ate passed a bill in late June. The House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives left for the Au­gust re­cess with no defin­it­ive floor ac­tion sched­uled on the hand­ful of bills that have come out of com­mit­tee. There is no pending le­gis­la­tion that ad­dresses a solu­tion for most of the mil­lion of im­mig­rants liv­ing il­leg­ally in the United States.

Pro­ponents of a path to cit­izen­ship, who have been act­ively ad­voc­at­ing for an im­mig­ra­tion-re­form bill over the con­gres­sion­al re­cess, are us­ing the march to press for quick ac­tion on their pri­or­it­ies. Janet Mur­guía, the pres­id­ent of the Na­tion­al Coun­cil of La Raza, told re­port­ers on a con­fer­ence call that King’s speech 50 years ago res­on­ated with the Latino com­munity. “He re­mains a be­loved icon to every­one,” she said.

“Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans un­der­stand the in­her­ent power of cit­izen­ship,” said Wade Hende­r­son of the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence on Civil and Hu­man Rights, who spoke to re­port­ers on the con­fer­ence call with Mur­guía and oth­ers. Lead­ers from both the black and His­pan­ic com­munit­ies have said join­ing ef­forts will make them stronger, not di­lute either mes­sage.

Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez of Illinois, per­haps the most prom­in­ent Demo­crat­ic ad­voc­ate for im­mig­ra­tion re­form, made this case from his own per­son­al ex­per­i­ence. “Quite simply, without the march and the move­ment, there is no Vot­ing Rights Act, and with no Vot­ing Rights Act, there is no ma­jor­ity Latino dis­trict carved out in Chica­go in 1990,” he said. “I wouldn’t be on this call as Rep. Lu­is Gu­ti­er­rez.”

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