"Preparedness" -- a throwback to the 1950s, when average Americans were frightened of "what could come, at any moment," and citizens were pressed to either affirm, or recapture their civil rights -- is again meant to be our watchword.
On May 9-10, hearings began at the Senate Dirksen Office Building by the Senate Judiciary Committee, on "Expiring Provisions of the Voting Rights Act and Legal Issues Relating to Reauthorization." Though others were present, two senators succinctly exposed two corners of the argument.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., committee chairman, made clear that concern was not merely over the re-authorization of the act, but also of the intellectual complexion of the Supreme Court, which had paled to such a conservatism that, assisted by contention of conservative politicians, various sections of the act might be pried from the body.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., whose remarks emerged from a briar -- scourged by Southern history and malfeasance -- valiant, and brimming with rectitude and progress, said his greatest desire was that all sections of the act should be discussed more, and by the Northern states, which have shown themselves available to discrimination that may not be in their history, but certainly is in their present.
A panel of distinguished witnesses was present to inform the Senate of just how important actions of Congress were to ordinary Americans. A lucky thing, as, besides the interns and staffers, lobbyists (predominantly men), and other devout workers of the Hill, there were no ordinary Americans in attendance.
Midmorning that first session, Sen. Specter had to leave; he handed the gavel over to Sen. Sessions, who then asked the panel if they felt that the Voting Rights Act was still a relevant tool, and whether some sections were more useful than others.
Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, Atlanta, Ga., responded with an example of just how important the protection of Section 5 was to him. He told the committee of a challenge to "preclearance" in a specific case of redistricting (Georgia vs. Ashcroft); Georgia State Attorney General Thurbert Baker, felt secure in not only bringing up a request that Section 5 be struck -- but arguing that minorities should never be allowed to participate in the preclearance process.
Mr. McDonald, who is white, pointed out that Mr. Baker, who is black, proved that the America we now live in is about issues of conservatism, and not just about color.
The Alabama senator, incensed at what he took to be the impugning of the reputation of the Georgian, remonstrated Mr. McDonald over the allusion that a man of color was capable of such egregiousness -- leaving inherent in this anger, that such a man could not possibly be "racist." The indignation appeared almost instinctually; a conditioned reflex for anything said, in this culture, close to color. But, however understandable a challenge it is, if we do not recognize that several generations of accomplishment has meant the opportunity of inclusion/fusion at the most common of denominators in human nature, we will always be making recessive choices out of bold issues, and shunting opportunity for debate.
As if to prove the point, House Republicans on June 21 shelved the reauthorization of the act until further investigations could be made as to its "vitality." The most significant piece of the impediment came boldly from Georgia, the very state that has been in the conversation and references of the Judiciary witnesses.
After the stunning, and certainly undermining action of the House Republican leadership, US Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, said, "Georgia is the last place that should seek to relieve itself from the commitment to fully empowered, equal participation that democracy implies." He went on to enjoin the other members to be swift in their reaffirming the act, before the July break, stating that "we still have a great distance to go before we can lay down the burden of voting discrimination in America."
Mr. Lewis, whose voice joined others which shouted in the darkness throughout the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, clearly recognizes this chill to civil liberties. He speaks out, knowing that he is not alone. What voices now answer must be heard. But to engage in addressing such reflexes, the public must show itself prepared to advance its interest.
Tom Minter is a black author and playwright living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at www.calibanproductions.com.
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