Congressman John Lewis, a hero of the civil-rights movement, said he was appalled to hear Justice Antonin Scalia refer to the Voting Rights Act as a “racial entitlement” today. Rep. Lewis was at the nation’s highest court to listen to arguments about whether the 1965 Voting Rights Act should be struck down as unconstitutional.
“It was unreal, unbelievable, almost shocking, for a member of the court to use certain language,” he said “I can see politicians and even members of Congress–it is just appalling to me.”
For Lewis, the comments were especially offensive because he knows from experience how hard he and others fought to win those rights. He was severely beaten by Alabama state troopers as he marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Al., on March 7, 1965, a date that’s now known as Bloody Sunday.
“It is an affront to all of what the civil rights movement stood for, what people died for, what people bled for, and those of us who marched across that bridge 48 years ago, we didn’t march for some racial entitlement,” he said. “We wanted to open up the political process, and let all of the people come in, and it didn’t matter whether they were black or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American.”
Reverend Al Sharpton, who was also in the court, called Scalia’s words “shocking.”
“How is that an entitlement?” Sharpton asked. “I thought African-Americans were citizens! For us to have the right to vote protected is some kind of entitlement program?”
Lewis agreed, calling the right to vote “precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent instrument that we have in a democratic society. And if the courts come to that point where they declare this section, section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, unconstitutional, it would be a dagger in the heart of the democratic process.”
Unfortunately, the consensus emerging from those who were inside the court today is that Section 5’s future is probably limited, especially since likely swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy seemed to think the law had outlived its usefulness. At one point he compared it to the Marshall Plan, noting that it too “was a good thing at one time, but times change.”
Lewis is hopeful though, that most Americans believe in the Voting Rights Act. “I think the great majority of the people of our country believe, truly believe, that all of us have the right to vote, that our right to vote should be protected by the law of the land.”