Georgia Congressman Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights leader for the last five decades, sharply criticized the Supreme Court's decision to strip a key enforcement mechanism from the Voting Rights Act, enacted nearly a half century ago to protect minority voters.
"What the Supreme Court did today is stab the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart," Lewis told Mitchell Tuesday, calling the 5-4 decision to strike down the formula Congress used to determine which districts require federal oversight of voting rules "a major step back."
A section of the 1965 Act required states with a history of discrimination toward minorities, largely clustered in the south, to submit any changes in voting procedure to federal authorities for approval. Tuesday's ruling means these areas no longer have to prove to the federal government that election changes won't reduce minority turnout.
A steadfast leader in the civil rights movement during the turbulent 1960s, Lewis endured savage beatings as a Freedom Rider who challenged segregation in bus terminals across the southern states. He delivered a keynote address at the landmark March on Washington in 1963. And he led hundreds of peaceful protesters in a march through Selma, Alabama in 1965 in support of the Voting Rights Act. The ensuing violent confrontation with Alabama state troopers is remembered as "Bloody Sunday."
"We may not have people being beaten today, maybe they are not being denied the right to participate or to register to vote, they're not being chased by police dogs or trampled by horses. But in the 11 states of the old Confederacy and even in some of the states outside of the South, there's been a systematic, deliberate attempt to take us back to another period. These men that voted to strip the Voting Rights Act of its power, they never stood in unmovable lines. They never had to pass a so-called literacy test. It took us almost a hundred years to get where we are today. So will it take another hundred years to fix it, to change it?"
Lewis witnessed President Johnson signing the historic Voting Rights Act into law nearly 50 years ago and still has a pen Johnson used to ink its permanence.
"I didn't think that on that day when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, that I would live to see five members of the United States Supreme Court undoing what President Johnson did with those pens," Lewis said.
"My message to the members of the United States Supreme Court is remember. Don't forget our recent history. Walk in our shoes. Come and walk in our shoes. Come and walk in the shoes of those three young men that died in Mississippi. Come and walk in the shoes of those of us who walked across that bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965."