WASHINGTON – President Bush promised a crowd of civil rights leaders Thursday that he would steadfastly enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as he signed a 25-year extension of the landmark legislation that enfranchised millions of minority voters.
But some black lawmakers said they were wary of Bush,promising to hold him to his words.
Flanked by House and Senate leaders and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on the White House South Lawn,Bush pledged stalwart support to the act,last renewed in 1982.
“Today,we renew a bill that helped bring a community on the margins into the life of American democracy,” Bush said. “My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law,and we will defend it in court.”
The law – and Bush’s promise – is essential to American democracy,said Rep. Melvin L. Watt,D-N.C.,chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“This is the right thing to do – it’s a part of basic human rights,” Watt said. “Here’s a law that needs executing.”
But Rep. David Scott,D-Ga.,said he was worried that Bush’s pledge meant that the president knows “storm clouds are forming” when it comes to protecting American voting rights.
“I’ve got to take him at his word,” he said. But,“There’s enough about in the air to let us know we must stay vigilant.”
The act’s renewal came after the collapse of some Southern Republicans’ opposition to renewal of portions of the act. Over the last couple weeks,bipartisan support allowed the extension to breeze through the House and Senate.
At issue had been Section 2,which requires multilingual balloting in areas dense with non-English-speaking voters,a provision that had become intertwined with the ongoing debate on immigration reform.
Maintaining that section was another huge victory for the Hispanic community in states like Texas,said Luis Vera,general counsel of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Last month,the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a LULAC Voting Rights Act challenge that a misshapen Texas district was drawn to dilute the voting power of Hispanics in the state.
“Families who live here still speak Spanish,” Vera said. “They need to put these things in Spanish so that people can understand and fully be informed of what they’re voting for.”
Also protested was Section 5,which requires federal clearance of any electoral changes made in nine states – Alabama,Alaska,Arizona,Georgia,Louisiana,Mississippi,South Carolina,Texas and all but eight counties in Virginia – and individual districts in several others.
Some state officials had testified that the preclearance requirements hindered states from effectively enforcing their voting laws. States and districts can opt out of those regulations,however,if they show they have maintained nondiscriminatory behavior over 10 years.
Both sections,along with a provision that requires federal poll-watchers in districts where voters have been intimidated,were slated to expire next year.
The extension was tagged with the names of three late female civil rights leaders: Rosa Parks,Fannie Lou Hamer and Corretta Scott King – wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Parks,who spurred the Montgomery,Ala.,bus boycott when she refused to give up her seat to a white man,and King died last year. Hamer,an organizer of the “Freedom Summer” black voter registration drive in Mississippi,died of breast cancer in 1977.
Among black leaders at Thursday’s signing ceremony were the Rev. Martin Luther King III,the Rev. Jesse Jackson,the Rev. Al Sharpton and boxing promoter Don King.
Also in the crowd was Selma,Ala.,Mayor James Perkins Jr.,the city’s first black mayor. A 600-strong,peaceful march voting rights from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965 was halted on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state troopers with billy clubs,whips and tear gas.
The brutality of “Bloody Sunday” galvanized support for federal intervention in Southern states’ efforts to disenfranchise blacks,and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on Aug. 7,1965.