Thank you, Congressman [Mel] Watt, for those kind words – and good afternoon, everyone. It is a pleasure to be here today. And it’s a privilege, as always, to stand among so many public servants, good friends, and passionate men and women who have dedicated their lives to the fight for equal rights and equal justice – both in your own communities and here in our nation’s capital. I am honored to share the stage with this distinguished panel, and would particularly like to thank the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation for organizing this event and bringing us together.
Through scholarship as well as advocacy, this organization has stood – for decades – at the forefront of critical dialogues about civil rights, education, healthcare, economic development, racial disparities, and criminal justice. Over the years, you have repeatedly proven your commitment to constructive engagement – and thoughtful discussion – on subjects that are both difficult and divisive. Even more importantly, you’ve regularly come together, through forums like this one, to translate ideas and shared values into principled action.
In so many ways, the CBC Foundation is leading national efforts to honor the achievements of our past – and to extend the legacies of the civil rights milestones that millions have paused to observe this summer: from the integration of the University of Alabama by my late sister-in-law Vivian Malone, and another student, 50 years ago this past June, to the senseless murder of Medgar Evers the very next day; from the March on Washington, half a century ago last month, to the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, 50 years ago last Sunday. Alongside President Obama and our colleagues throughout the Administration, you’ve joined in ceremonies to pay tribute to the pioneers who organized, rallied, sacrificed, and too often died to bring about the progress this nation has witnessed over the past five decades. You’ve also shown that you recognize – as I do – that we can best honor these brave men, women, and innocent children not merely by reflecting on our past, and celebrating the achievements of the present – but by continuing their work, which has now become our work, into the future.
This means standing up, and speaking out, for the civil rights to which everyone in this country is entitled. It means calling attention to persistent disparities and inequities, including those that plague America’s criminal justice system – some of which I discussed with CBC Foundation members yesterday afternoon. And it means working tirelessly to safeguard what’s been called the “most basic” of American rights – the right to vote – and ensuring that, despite recent setbacks, our time is defined by the continued expansion of the franchise.
It was nearly half a century ago when President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law – in order to preserve what he called “the dignity of man, and the decency of democracy.” Near the height of the Civil Rights Era, he reaffirmed his commitment to President Kennedy’s ambitious agenda by joining countless Americans – seemingly ordinary, but all extraordinary – in rejecting the forces of bigotry and injustice. He asked how a great nation – whose strength is rooted in the ability of its citizens to choose their own leaders – could deny the right of any citizen to cast a ballot. And when Congress finally took action to pass the Voting Rights Act, he signed this historic legislation in order to codify into law a truth that had been called “self-evident,” but left unrealized, nearly two centuries before: that all are created equal.
The enactment of the Voting Rights Act was a vindication of untold millions who had taken to the streets of this city and others across the country – braving dogs and fire hoses, billy clubs and baseball bats, bullets and bombs – to secure those rights which were theirs as Americans. This law empowered the U.S. Department of Justice to fight unjust attempts to abridge voting rights and restrict access to the franchise. And, for nearly five decades, it provided robust, enforceable safeguards that helped protect the right of every American to cast a ballot – unencumbered by discriminatory rules, regulations, and procedures that, intentionally or not, discourage and disenfranchise.
This is why Members of Congress, and presidents of both parties, have consistently supported the Voting Rights Act – including its most recent reauthorization, in 2006, which – thanks to the extraordinary efforts of a great Congressman, Jim Sensenbrenner, who we should all be honored to have with us today – received near-unanimous support on Capitol Hill and was signed by President Bush. At the center of every version of this law was a requirement – known as “preclearance” – that put on hold any new voting changes that were adopted by “covered jurisdictions” until they had been subjected to a fair, and thorough, review.
This process regularly resulted in approvals for impartial voting changes, while also allowing the Justice Department to work with covered jurisdictions to address problems wherever they occurred. Unfortunately, in June – as you all know – a narrowly split and deeply divided Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that determined how this important requirement was applied.
Let me be clear: this was a deeply flawed decision that effectively invalidated a cornerstone of American civil rights law. And, although it has had a significant impact on the Justice Department’s enforcement abilities – as President Obama and I have said, and as my colleagues and I are already proving – we will not allow the Court’s action to be interpreted as “open season” for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights.
This decision has not, and it will not, weaken our resolve to ensure that every American can exercise his or her rights freely, fairly, and without intimidation or interference. Neither the President, nor I, nor the Department I am honored to lead, will waver in our determination to stand vigilant against changes that may hamper voting rights. We will not hesitate to take appropriately aggressive action against any jurisdiction that attempts to hinder access to the franchise. And we will continue to vigorously enforce federal voting laws not affected by the Supreme Court’s decision – including all remaining parts of the Voting Rights Act.
This constitutes our obligation, and our solemn commitment – a commitment we’re backing up with action. Earlier this summer, I announced that the Justice Department has asked a federal court to submit the State of Texas to a preclearance regime similar to the one required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Since then, the Department also has challenged the State’s restrictive new voter identification law. Thanks to the hard work of our Civil Rights Division, we are continuing to refine and re-focus current enforcement efforts across the country. And while the suits we’ve filed in Texas mark the first voting rights enforcement actions the Justice Department has taken since the Supreme Court ruling – they will not be the last.
Of course, the responsibility to protect the rights of every American does not end with the Department of Justice. It has always been up to every citizen, and every public servant, to stand against discrimination wherever it is found. This is an issue that transcends partisanship. It’s about who we are, and who we want to become, as a nation. And it’s clear that the Justice Department’s ongoing work will never be a substitute for public engagement – and Congressional action.
That’s why we must regard this recent setback not as a defeat for the cause of voting rights, but as an opportunity to ensure that modern protections are adequate to the challenges of the 21st century. I know that all of you – along with the President and members of the House and Senate from across the political spectrum, share my commitment to this goal – and no one more so than Congressman Sensenbrenner. He did not hesitate to jump to action after the Supreme Court’s decision, immediately acknowledging that the Voting Rights Act “is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed.” And I wholeheartedly agree with his observation that the law is “vital to our commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in our electoral process.”
And it is my hope – and expectation – that, together, we can find a responsible way to move forward – recognizing that the country we love is greater than the interests of any short-term goals.
As concerned citizens, as passionate advocates – and as public servants – everyone in this room has been charged with upholding the ideals that define this country. The stakes are simply too high, and the potential costs too great, to devote anything less than our best efforts to the protection of these rights. We know from our history – and from the milestones we’ve celebrated this year – that advances in civil and voting rights have been hard won and were not inevitable. And that’s why we cannot, we must not, and we will not simply stand by as the voices of those disproportionately affected by some of the recent proposals we’ve seen – the poor, the elderly, the infirm, the young, and people of color – are shut out of the process of self-governance.
For more than two centuries, this nation has been built, and it continues to be improved, both by and for the people – generation after generation. Our course has been set by patriotic Americans like all of you – who come together to push this country forward based on common ideals and mutual understanding.
Our progress has always been of our own making. And today, this progress is entrusted to each of us. It belongs to men and women of courage and principle who continue to call for – and work towards – a more just and more equal America. It belongs to those who envision a future where our daughters are guaranteed the same rights and opportunities as our sons. It belongs to advocates who keep standing up for the principle that no one is too small to deserve equal treatment under the law – and no one is too big to escape it. And it belongs to the leaders in – and far beyond – this room, who recognize that the free exercise of our fundamental rights must never be subject to politics or geography. On the contrary: they must always be the birthright, and the solemn responsibility, of every citizen.
Our work is not yet finished. Significant challenges remain before us. But as I look over this crowd today, I cannot help but feel confident in where our collective efforts will lead us from here. I am proud to count each of you as a colleague, and an essential partner, in the work of building a more perfect Union. And I look forward to all that we must – and surely will – achieve together in the months and years ahead.
Thank you, once again, for your commitment to this work – and for the dialogue you’re building here in Washington this week. I wish you all a most productive discussion and look forward to the work we will do together to make more perfect our union.