Justice News

Associate Attorney General Tony West Delivers Remarks at the Progressive National Baptist Convention
Fort Lauderdale, FL
United States
Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Dr. [Carroll] Baltimore, for that kind introduction.  I salute you for your leadership of this convention and I congratulate you on this successful convening.

I have to say, I feel very much at home here, being the great-grandson of two South Florida Baptist preachers – although clearly, the program organizers were unaware of my Baptist pedigree as they only allotted me 10 minutes to speak. 

It is such an honor to address this convention.  I was thinking on the way down here about the living history that this convention represents: About the fact that this was the denominational home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; about how we cannot talk about the Civil Rights Movement and not in the same breath speak of this organization, and about the leadership of Dr. Taylor, Rev. Booth, Rev. Chambers and so many others.

And I thought about how much I owe to this convention, as an African-American man: too young to remember first-hand the Civil Rights Movement’s most dramatic, seminal moments; yet too old not to feel the weight of responsibility for preserving, protecting, defending and promoting the movement's legacy in the public service I am now privileged to perform.

We’re in a time when we're celebrating a number of significant anniversaries – milestones that make all the more salient the historic centrality of this great, Progressive National Baptist Convention:

Fifty years since they came by the hundreds of thousands to gather peacefully on the Washington Mall, marching for jobs and freedom;

Since college students, black and white, boarded buses in the North and rode them deep into the South, riding with the certainty of danger but the faith of Paul;

Since the ’64 Civil Rights Act and Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer.”

And as we think about the those anniversaries, we have reason to rejoice in the great progress forged by ordinary men and women in shattering boundaries once thought unbreakable – enormous change wrought in the short space of five decades.

And yet, I am struck by the fact that at the heart of what Dr. King, his contemporaries and this convention were grappling with back then remain, fundamentally, the same challenges facing us today:

How do we build a society that allows all people the freedom to realize fully their own potential?

How do we ensure that, in Dr. King’s words, “[l]aw and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice” and not as “dams that block the flow of social progress?”

How do we make certain that this bold experiment in self-government is inclusive, responsive and maintains its legitimacy in the eyes of those it serves?

The opening lines of our story as one nation begin with a promise:  a promise that we are all created equal.  And nowhere is this promise manifest more tangibly than in the right to vote. 

That sacred franchise – the right to choose who will speak and act in our names; the right to express sovereignty over our government; a right that is, to paraphrase Lincoln, the foundation on which the temple of liberty is built because it protects all other rights – that right, more than any other, is what defines us as joint and equal members of this unique, democratic idea called the United States of America.

And next year, we’ll mark 50 years since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  You know, after President Lyndon signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, there were those – many of them his close allies – who told him to wait, to slow down; that it was too soon to start work on another major piece of civil rights legislation.

But President Johnson knew that 100 years after the franchise had been promised to African-Americans – a commitment forged by Civil War and consummated by constitutional amendment – Johnson knew that the time for waiting had run out.

Instead of waiting, Johnson acted, saying, “About this there can and should be no argument.  Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.”

So it is a sad irony that five decades later, we find ourselves working overtime to hold onto to that promise.  It is ironic that 50 years later, we are battling efforts that make it harder, not easier, for people to cast their votes.  It is ironic that in 2014, we must litigate against laws that impede voter registration that curtail democratic participation; or impose restrictive voter ID requirements that we know have a disproportionate effect on poor people and people of color, making it harder for them to exercise the franchise.

Now, I don’t want there to be any confusion about this so let me be clear: where there’s evidence of voter fraud, we won’t tolerate it.  Voter fraud undermines our democracy.  Nobody believes we should accept that. 

But public policy studies from across the political spectrum come to the same conclusion that in-person voter fraud is extremely rare.  Too often, the fervor surrounding voter ID laws seems more like a solution in search of a problem.  And so we need to be mindful that “the real voter fraud,” as the president says, “is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud.”

The right to vote faces other challenges, as well.  Repeatedly, a bipartisan Congress of the United States reauthorized Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act – most recently in 2006 with unanimous support in the Senate and near-unanimous support in the House.  And repeatedly, Republican and Democratic Administrations used these provisions to secure the franchise for all American citizens.

Yet notwithstanding this bipartisan history, last year we lost an important tool in our anti-discrimination toolbox when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act. 

So, on the eve of the 50 th anniversary of the ’65 Voting Rights Act – in the middle of a season where we remember Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer” – we know that our work is far from done.  We know that the perennial lesson of history is that the triumphs won by Dr. King, by Fannie Lou Hamer, by the Progressive National Baptist Convention and by so many others – those triumphs must be won anew in this generation, because the hard reality is that the right to vote faces threats today as stark and serious and urgent as any it faced 50 years ago.

And that is why we must continue to act.  That is why protecting the fundamental right to vote for all Americans remains one of the Justice Department’s highest priorities.  Because standing by as the voices of some Americans are shut out of the democratic process is simply not an option.

So at the Department of Justice, we are continuing to monitor jurisdictions around the country, and we're watching for changes in their voting laws that may hamper voting rights. 

Our message is unequivocal: we will use every legal tool that remains available to us, against any jurisdiction that seeks to hinder eligible citizens’ full and free right to vote.

When we see something that causes us concern, we won't hesitate to make it plain.  In Texas, we have gone to court to challenge a voter ID law and a congressional redistricting map that we contend discriminate against Latino voters.  In North Carolina, we have sued the state over discriminatory voting laws that restrict access to the polling place and make it harder for voters to case their ballots. 

Last week, we submitted filings in voting rights cases in two different states: Wisconsin and Ohio.  In Wisconsin, we're contending that the federal judge there got it right when she struck down Wisconsin’s strict photo voter ID requirement due to its adverse effects on minority voters under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

In Ohio, in a case challenging that state’s law curtailing early voting and same-day registration, we filed a statement in support of the NAACP's position, arguing that Ohio has misinterpreted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in defending its law.

And while we will continue to use all the legal authority we have to protect vigorously the right to vote, the fact is there is no substitute – as the president has made clear – for strong congressional action which guarantees that every American has equal access to the polls.  That is why the Justice Department is providing assistance to Congress to formulate potential legislative proposals to address voting rights discrimination. 

And, importantly, this work is bipartisan, because the fundamental right to vote must be above party or partisanship – too much hard work has been done, too much blood has been shed, too many lives lost and voices silenced for this to be simply about partisan politics.  

No, this is about something much deeper, much more important.  We know what this is about.  It’s about who we are as a nation – who we are as a free and fair democratic society. 

Because if a government of, by and for the people means anything at all, it means that a ballot has the power to give equal voice to the high and the low; the weak and the strong; those at the bottom as well as the top.  It means that in the polling place, the line is just as long for the richest among us as it is for those who often work the hardest but have the least.

And just as in 1965, those of us in the federal government – we cannot win this battle alone.  We will need your help.  We will need your hands.  We will need your voices to help us walk and not grow faint; to push us on and not get discouraged; to lift us up and carry us forward.  We will need your leadership to help us pull our nation out of its acquiescence and, in the proud tradition of this great convention, push it into action once again.

Thank you and God bless you. 

Updated September 17, 2014