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Clinton slams voting restrictions in civil rights speech

In a speech marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Clinton went after Republicans and the Supreme Court for restricting voting rights.
Former President Bill Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton speaks at a political fundraiser in Hot Springs, Ark., April 5, 2014.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Former President Bill Clinton didn't mention Chief Justice John Roberts. He didn't mention the Republican Party. But in his speech at the summit marking the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he raked both over the coals for restricting the right to vote. 

"Is this what Martin Luther King gave his life for? Is this what Lyndon Johnson employed his legendary skills for? Is this what America has become a great thriving democracy for? To restrict the franchise?" Clinton said Wednesday evening in a speech at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library. "We have too many current challenges to waste today trying to recreate a yesterday that we're better off done with."

Last year the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the provision that determined which jurisdictions with histories of discrimination in voting had to submit their election law changes for federal approval in advance. Republican-controlled state legislatures celebrated the ruling by passing new voting restrictions, free at last from federal supervision designed to make sure American citizens were not being denied the right to vote. Texas, where the summit is being held, has defended itself in court by arguing that if state legislators made it harder for minorities to vote, it was only because they were trying to make it harder for Democrats to vote.

Clinton called the Supreme Court's decision "one of the most radical departures from established legal decision-making in my lifetime," said restrictions on voting rights were "risking the future of this great experiment" and could "put us back in the dustbin of old history."

Though the summit is meant to mark the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, passed a year later, reshaped American democracy by making it accountable, for the first time to the masses of black Americans who had so long been denied their basic rights. 

"We are going to go into the future together, no matter who does what to the requirements to vote. What is left for us is to define the terms of our interdependence," Clinton said. "I would like them to be defined in the way that Lyndon Johnson defined his choice so long ago when people were counselling caution. He decided to form a more perfect union and so should we."