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July 15, 2015 1

The Voting Rights Advancement Act: Necessary to Ensure Voting Rights for All

Almost fifty years ago, on August 6, 1965, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son signed the his­toric Vot­ing Rights Act (VRA), one of the most impor­tant and effec­tive pieces of civil rights leg­is­la­tion ever passed.   In the almost half cen­tury since its pas­sage, the VRA has secured and safe­guarded the right to vote for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. Its suc­cess in elim­i­nat­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory bar­ri­ers to full civic par­tic­i­pa­tion and in advanc­ing equal polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment is unde­ni­able. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has sup­ported pas­sage of the VRA and every reau­tho­riza­tion since 1965, filed ami­cus briefs urg­ing the Supreme Court to uphold the law, pro­moted aware­ness about the impor­tance of the VRA, and encour­aged the Depart­ment of Jus­tice to use the VRA to pro­tect vot­ing rights for all.

VRA interns for web

The last time Con­gress extended the VRA, it did so after an exhaus­tive exam­i­na­tion of vot­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and the impact of the VRA – days of hear­ings and thou­sands of pages of doc­u­men­ta­tion. The leg­is­la­tion passed over­whelm­ing: 390 to 33 in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and 98–0 in the Senate.

Notwith­stand­ing this over­whelm­ing sup­port and exhaustively-documented leg­isla­tive his­tory – and the unde­ni­ably extra­or­di­nary impact of the VRA–a bit­terly divided 5–4 major­ity of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down §4(b) of the VRA (the for­mula to deter­mine which states and polit­i­cal sub­di­vi­sions would have to pre­clear all vot­ing changes) in Shelby County v. Holder , essen­tially gut­ting the heart of the legislation.

Almost imme­di­ately after the deci­sion, states that had been sub­ject to pre­clear­ance over­sight for vot­ing changes began enact­ing laws that threaten to dis­pro­por­tion­ately dis­en­fran­chise minor­ity, young, poor, and elderly vot­ers. Texas, for exam­ple, enacted a strict plan that fed­eral courts had pre­vi­ously rejected, find­ing that there was “more evi­dence of dis­crim­i­na­tory intent than we have space, or need, to address here….Simply put, many His­pan­ics and African Amer­i­cans who voted in the last elec­tions will, because of the bur­dens imposed by SB 14 , likely be unable to vote.”

Texas was not alone in quickly mov­ing to enact unwar­ranted voter ID laws and restric­tions on voter reg­is­tra­tion and early vot­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. In fact, the efforts over the last few years to restrict vot­ing rights around the coun­try are unprece­dented in mod­ern Amer­ica. The United States has not seen such a major leg­isla­tive push to limit vot­ing rights since right after Reconstruction

In Shelby County, the Court invited Con­gress to craft a new for­mula based on its guid­ance. This leg­is­la­tion, the Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act, has now been intro­duced in both the House and the Sen­ate. The mea­sure would update the cov­er­age for­mula, put in place addi­tional safe­guards for vot­ing, and help ensure that all Amer­i­cans can have their say in our democracy.

As we cel­e­brate the anniver­sary of the VRA, it’s time to leg­is­late, not just commemorate.

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March 26, 2015 2

50 Years Later: Bending the Arc of the Moral Universe Towards Justice

Fifty years ago yes­ter­day Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. addressed a crowd of 20,000 peo­ple, many of whom had marched for a week from Selma to Mont­gomery, Alabama to advo­cate for vot­ing rights.  Their arrival was tri­umphant, after the first attempt had left the non-violent marchers blood­ied and beaten—but not defeated—by police offi­cers in Selma two-and-a-half weeks before. As he stood on the steps of the capi­tol build­ing in Mont­gomery and reflected on the jour­ney of the civil rights move­ment, Dr. King rhetor­i­cally asked, “How long will it take?” and famously answered, “Not long, because the arc of the moral uni­verse is long, but it bends towards justice.” martin-luther-king-jr

As with any long arc, it is almost impos­si­ble to see progress from up close.  Each small, incre­men­tal change seems insignif­i­cant from that van­tage point.  Yet tak­ing a step back and look­ing at the tra­jec­tory over the past 50 years reveals how every small step has con­tributed to bend­ing the arc just a lit­tle bit fur­ther towards justice.

Today, the United States has the first African Amer­i­can pres­i­dent and there are almost seven times as many African Amer­i­can elected offi­cials as there were in 1970, when researchers first began track­ing the num­bers. The 2012 elec­tion marked the first elec­tion in which African Amer­i­cans voted at a higher rate than whites.  None of that would have been pos­si­ble with­out the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, which in turn would never have come to be with­out the tire­less, daily efforts of count­less indi­vid­u­als.  From the Free­dom Rid­ers who risked their lives to reg­is­ter vot­ers, to the peo­ple who fear­lessly faced police offi­cers with billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pet­tus Bridge, to the advo­cates who lob­bied for pas­sage of the bill and the lawyers who argued in court for it to be upheld, each had a small part in bend­ing the arc.

In other areas of civil rights, too, each incre­men­tal step seems small up close but con­tributes to the greater tra­jec­tory.  Today, as the United States hope­fully stands on the eve of mar­riage equal­ity for all, it is clear that many small steps com­bined to get us here.  From the pro­test­ers at Stonewall to the seven cou­ples who brought a case in Mass­a­chu­setts that would ulti­mately make it the first state with mar­riage equal­ity, from the mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity who came out when it was very dif­fi­cult to do so to their allies who spoke up and spoke out about LGBT rights, each per­son and action had a small part to play.  In the area of women’s rights, the women who con­vened a meet­ing in Seneca Falls to write the Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights and Sen­ti­ments, the suf­fragettes, the women who had careers long before it was socially accepted, those who coura­geously came for­ward to speak about sex­ual harass­ment, and the men who sup­ported equal pay for equal work all put small cracks in the glass ceil­ing.  Together, all the advo­cates, activists, allies, and peo­ple who sim­ply spoke up played a part in bend­ing the arc.

The lessons of Selma are about secur­ing the fun­da­men­tal right to vote for all and civil rights more broadly.  But they are also about what can hap­pen over time if each per­son plays a part in advanc­ing civil rights, speak­ing up for social jus­tice, and mov­ing the ball for­ward just the tini­est bit.  Fifty years after Selma, we are much fur­ther along the arc and much closer to a per­fect union, but each of us has a role to play every day in deter­min­ing the tra­jec­tory from here.

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July 3, 2014 0

From the Archives: ADL & the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Part 3

On June 10, 1964, a year after Pres­i­dent Kennedy first intro­duced the Civil Rights Act to the nation in a tele­vised address, a coali­tion of 44 Democ­rats and 27 Repub­li­cans voted for clo­ture, which lim­ited fur­ther debate and ended the 57-day fil­i­buster of the bill.

ADL had lob­bied for the bill in the months prior, includ­ing orga­niz­ing a meet­ing of 100 Jew­ish busi­ness, pro­fes­sional, and civic lead­ers from all over the United States, who met in Wash­ing­ton, DC, and urged their home-state Sen­a­tors to take action towards pas­sage of the bill.

In a press release react­ing to the Senate’s vote for clo­ture, ADL National Chair­man Dore Schary stated:

The vote on the clo­ture rule which now assures pas­sage of the Civil Rights Act is a vic­tory for all who love jus­tice and love an Amer­ica con­ceived in lib­erty. It is a defeat for no one except those who would pre­vent Amer­ica from achiev­ing its ulti­mate dream… For the thou­sands of civil rights lead­ers and for the coun­try as a whole, the final pas­sage of the Civil Rights Bill will pro­vide new oppor­tu­ni­ties, which they dare not squan­der, to help our Negro cit­i­zens achieve a full mea­sure of their rights as Americans.

The Civil Rights Act passed the Sen­ate with a vote of 73–27 on June 19.

On June 21, the same day on which three civil rights work­ers were kid­napped and mur­dered in Mis­sis­sippi, the Illi­nois Rally for Civil Rights was held at Chicago’s Sol­dier Field. The Anti-Defamation League was among the spon­sors of the rally, which fea­tured the Rev­erend Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. The rally was planned to urge pas­sage by the Sen­ate, but was ulti­mately anti-climactic, as pas­sage by the House was the immi­nent. ADL’s Mid­west Direc­tor A. Abott Rosen described the day:

There was no ques­tion of Jew­ish par­tic­i­pa­tion, there were no sus­pi­cions on the parts of blacks of Jews or other whites on this glo­ri­ous day. We didn’t take a head count of the num­ber of blacks and the num­ber of wSigning_of_Civil_Rights_Acthites present in Sol­diers Field that day, but to my eye, I would sug­gest that the group was almost equally divided.

On July 2, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives voted by more than a two-thirds mar­gin (289–126) to adopt the Senate-passed ver­sion of the Civil Rights Act. That day, Pres­i­dent John­son signed the bill in a nation­ally broad­cast ceremony.

ADL’s National Pro­gram Direc­tor Oscar Cohen later recalled:

The ques­tion arose in ADL cir­cles fre­quently as to why ADL was so totally involved with the strug­gle for equal rights for blacks … First, we claimed, that no minor­ity was safe unless all minori­ties were and prej­u­dice and dis­crim­i­na­tion could not be cured in our soci­ety unless the cure related to all minori­ties … if civil rights laws were passed, such as fair employ­ment and fair hous­ing laws, they would at one stroke elim­i­nate dis­crim­i­na­tion against all groups, includ­ing Jews.

Today, ADL is help­ing to lead a very large coali­tion work­ing to fight dis­crim­i­na­tion, pro­mote equal­ity, and pro­tect the same vot­ing rights for which civil rights work­ers Michael Schw­erner, Andrew Good­man, and James Chaney gave their lives. The League is urg­ing broad sup­port for the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (VRAA), which would cre­ate a new for­mula for pre-clearing vot­ing rights changes.

Fifty years later, ADL com­mem­o­rates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a para­mount step towards our core value “to secure jus­tice and fair treat­ment for all” and reaf­firms our ded­i­ca­tion to con­tinue the fight in the ongo­ing strug­gle for equality.

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