Washington, DC–Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid today delivered the following speech on the Floor of the U.S. Senate, calling on the Senate to renew the Voting Rights Act. Despite early promises that this critical protection of the basic right to vote would be swiftly reauthorized on a bipartisan basis in the Congress, Republican divisions and delays put its passage on hold. Today’s vote is a vindication for Democrats, who have fought to overcome Republican obstacles and ensure this vital legislation is reauthorized before the August recess.
The text of Senator Reid’s remarks, as prepared, is below.
Mr. President, on March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson came to the Capitol to address a joint session of the United States Congress. He spoke to a House, Senate and a nation that had been rocked by recent violence in Selma, Alabama.
President Johnson’s purpose that night was to spur Congress to finally move forward on the Voting Rights Act, the legislation whose reauthorization we will consider today.
That Congress in 1965 -like this Congress in 2006 – was slow to pass voting rights legislation, so President Johnson came to the Hill to remind everyone what was at stake.
Here is part of what he said:
“This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, no hesitation and no compromise with our purpose.
“We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in. “And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait another 8 months before we get a bill. We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.”
Mr. President, once again in our country, “the time for waiting is gone.” The Senate “cannot, we must not,” go another day without sending the Voting Rights Act to the President’s desk. We have already waited too long. I–like many others–expected this legislation to be passed months ago.
In May, I remember standing on the Capitol steps with Senator Frist, House leaders, the Chairman and Ranking Members of the Judiciary Committees from both bodies, and civil rights leaders from across the country, to announce the bipartisan, bicameral introduction of this bill.
It seemed then that the Voting Rights Act would move forward in the swift, bipartisan fashion it deserves.
How wrong that perception proved to be.
In the House, consideration was delayed for weeks. It only recently passed over the objections of conservative opponents. In the Senate, we saw a similar delay. In fact, as recently as last week, the Majority Leader wasn’t sure he would even bring this bill to the floor before the August recess.
Thankfully, he listened to Democrats, had a change of heart, and brought the bill before the Senate today. The Voting Rights Act is too important to fall by the wayside – like so many other issues in this Republican Senate.
Remember, the Voting Rights Act isn’t just another bill. It’s paramount to the preservation of our democracy. As we’ve seen in recent elections, we remain a nation far from perfect. The fact is we still have a lot of work to do. But in the last 40 years, thanks to the Voting Rights Act, we have come a long way.
Before the Voting Rights Act, African Americans who tried to register to vote were subject to beatings, literacy tests and poll taxes.
Before the Voting Rights Act, over 90 percent of eligible African Americans voters in Mississippi didn’t register to vote. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t.
Before the Voting Rights Act, it would have been unheard of to have 43 African American members of Congress, as we do today.
Mr. President, in the Senate, we cast a lot of votes. But not all of them are for causes for which Americans – just a few decades ago – were willing to risk their lives. It’s a sad fact of American history that blood was spilled and violence erupted before the nation opened its eyes to injustice and the need to guarantee–in law–everyone’s right to vote.
It’s important all of us remember the sacrifice of these Americans. And to make sure we do–after this bill becomes law–I will seek to add the name of John Lewis to this bill. I understand Senators Leahy and Salazar are doing a similar thing with Cesar Chavez, an action I also support.
The heroic actions of men like John Lewis and Cesar Chavez are shining examples of the heroic actions of so many during the fight for equal rights.
Congressman Lewis is a civil rights icon and a personal hero of mine. He’s given his entire life to the causes of justice and equality. He was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. He was in Selma when the billy clubs, police dogs and fire hoses were used on Bloody Sunday. And to this day, he has not given up the fight.
Similarly, during his life, Cesar Chavez was a champion for the American principles of justice, equality and freedom. He fearlessly fought to right the wrongs inflicted on America’s farm workers and brought national attention to the causes of labor and injustice.
America is a better place because of men like John Lewis and Cesar Chavez. By placing their names on this landmark legislation, we can be sure all of us in America will always remember the sacrifices made in the name of equality.
Mr. President, I began by quoting Lyndon Johnson’s speech in 1965.
There’s another excerpt from that speech with which I would like to close. It begins:
“In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation.”
This same challenge–a challenge “to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our nation”–is now before the Senate.
I’m disappointed it has taken so long. But I am proud it is a challenge that today the Senate will meet.