Washington, D.C. – Nevada Senator Harry Reid made remarks today commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
When a quarter of a million Americans marched on Washington demanding what Dr. King called, “a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity,” I was doing exactly what I am today – working in the United States Capitol. On August 28, 1963, I was working as a Capitol police officer.
Looking out from the Capitol, I watched the buses roll into Washington. I didn’t know there were that many buses in the world. And then I watched a sea of men, women and children emerged from those buses and peaceably assembled to petition their government for redress of grave grievances.
They came from every corner of the country – from the shores of California and the Las Vegas Strip; from steel cities and one horse towns; from the streets of Selma, the fields of Georgia and the bayous of Louisiana. These proud African-Americans and their allies would no longer stand silent while a nation that promised liberty and justice for all denied true freedom to so many.
I could not hear the speeches given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day. I could not feel the heat of the August sun on the National Mall. But I could see the tide of history turn as hundreds of thousands of my brothers, sisters and fellow Americans pushed forward toward freedom.
That day, Martin Luther King shared his dream and urged marchers to consider 1963 not as the end of the fight for civil rights, but as the beginning. This is what he said: “We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ … We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In the year following that historic march and those momentous words, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the states ratified the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing poll taxes that disenfranchised African-American voters. The year after that, the Voting Rights Act was enacted into law – installing crucial safeguards against the discrimination then common at polling places, especially in the south.
But Dr. King was right when he said that the struggle for equality would be an ongoing one. And Dr. King was right when he said that we should not rest until we feel the waters of justice roll down around us.
Fifty years later, some of the progress made by the civil rights movement and some of the freedoms protected by the Voting Rights Act are once again under siege. Since the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down portions of the Voting Rights Act, states are once again free to erect barriers that discourage American citizens from exercising one of their most fundamental rights – the right to vote – without intimidation or obstruction. Regrettably, many states have begun to do just that. In Texas and Mississippi, North Carolina and Florida, groups are already devising creative new ways to make it difficult for the young, the old, the poor and minorities to vote.
Those who value the progress sparked 50 years ago by the March on Washington should take this assault on freedom seriously. Any changes to our voting process should be enacted to encourage voters to make their voices heard, not discourage them from taking part in democracy.
I have asked Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy to examine these dangerous voter suppression efforts, and propose steps the Senate can take to ensure the right of every American to cast a ballot.
On the day the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law, President Johnson warned that the struggle for equality was not nearly over. This is what he said: “Those who founded our country knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning… Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders.” Those words are a reminder to a new generation of equality activists that freedom must be tended for it to grow.