This month, Americans gathered in the streets of Washington D.C. to honor and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when nearly a quarter million people marched on the nation's Capitol demanding jobs, freedom and equality. To this day, it remains one of the largest human right's demonstrations in our nation's history.
The March on Washington and the broader movement of which it was a part helped to remake America and gave us two of the most consequential bills in our history – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, and of course, the Voting Rights Act (VRA), protects the foundational right upon which all others depend.
I was a child growing up in Boston at the time of Martin Luther King's iconic speech, and didn't hear it in its entirety until many years later when I bought a record album of his speeches. And when I did, like much of America, I was mesmerized by the power of his words and vision, and the beauty of that magnificent baritone voice. I remember discussing King with my parents, what he meant to the country, and the tragedy of his loss. Now I discuss King and the March with my own children who know a lot more about both than I did at that age.
Serving in Congress, I don't have to look far for a reminder of the sacrifices and heroism of the civil rights leaders of the 1960s. Every day, I have the privilege of working with Representative John Lewis, who, as a young man from Georgia was on the front lines of the civil rights movement and also addressed the throngs who assembled on the Mall to hear Dr. King in 1963. I had the honor of joining Lewis on a civil rights pilgrimage to Alabama a few years ago, site of many of the best-known struggles for racial equality like the march across the Edmund Pettis bridge.
The hard-won victories of the civil rights movement are not abstract memories when you talk to John Lewis – he was among the thousands who endured arrests, beatings and worse when he demonstrated the courage to stand up for the rights of all Americans.
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, he signed into law a bill that was the culmination of generations of struggle. Sadly, in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court earlier this year struck down the provision at the very heart of the Voting Rights Act that so many fought hard to pass. Rep. Lewis's reaction to those five Justices who formed the majority in Shelby was powerful and personal: "These men never stood in unmovable lines. They were never denied the right to participate in the democratic process. They were never beaten, jailed, run off their farms or fired from their jobs. No one they knew died simply trying to register to vote."
I share my colleague's deep dismay over the Court's tragic ruling. Section Four for the Voting Rights Act, struck down by the decision, is really the teeth of the law and required certain jurisdictions – both states and municipalities – with a history of voting discrimination against minorities to "pre-clear" changes to their laws with federal authorities. This provision has been extremely important to the VRA's enforcement because it discouraged states from trying to enact discriminatory regulations.
In the wake of the this ruling, Congress needs to examine the best way forward to protect voting rights and restore the full force and effect of the Voting Rights Act. In the meantime, the Department of Justice should aggressively use its remaining authorities under the VRA to challenge discriminatory laws in states. They have already begun to do so, most recently filing in federal court to enjoin a new "voter ID" law in Texas that could restrict voting among minorities and the elderly.
Dr. King famously said the "arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." The Supreme Court's ruling was a setback, but I believe there is a way forward that protects the right to vote for all Americans. The only question now is whether Congress can muster the courage to act again and make this generation's contribution to bending that arc towards justice.
[Adam Bennett Schiff is the U.S. Representative for California's 28th congressional district. He has served in Congress since 2001. He is a member of the Democratic Party and currently serving his 7th term in the House of Representatives. Schiff currently serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. For more information, visit http://schiff.house.gov/.]