Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006

Date: July 13, 2006
Location: Washington, DC



Mr. BONNER. Mr. Chairman, I came to the House floor today with every desire--every hope in my heart--to vote for extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Unfortunately, later this afternoon when the vote is actually called, even after several amendments that in my view would improve it have been voted on and, in all likelihood, voted down--it will be with a heavy heart--but a clear conscious--that I must vote against the underlying bill.

Please allow me to explain.

Mr. Chairman, there are 160 members of this House who are attorneys by training. Some were judges and have ruled on the merits of the law; others were distinguished members of the bar in their hometowns and communities before they were elected to Congress.

All, I am certain, are more qualified than I am--as I am not an attorney--to look at the Voting Rights Act of 1965--and its subsequent extensions over the years--and argue with more authority and legal knowledge the pros and cons of Section 2 or Section 4 or Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, or whether or not Ashcroft v. Georgia should or should not remain a factor as new congressional district lines are drawn in the coming decades.

Likewise, every one of us here in this body comes to Congress with some degree of political acumen and understanding.

Many of our colleagues were former legislators back home; we have former governors and secretaries of state, former political science professors who once taught the subject in the classroom, even a former wrestling coach who serves today with great distinction as our Speaker.

Every person in this room is as qualified as I am--many are probably more so to peer into the proverbial ``crystal ball'' we all wish we had and try to guess whether by passing this extension, we'll be making our country a ``little more red'' or a ``little more blue.''

Let's be honest, Mr. Chairman, for many in this hallowed chamber, that is what this vote today is all about.

But while I am neither an attorney who has mastered Constitutional law nor a political expert who has extraordinary vision, I believe it is safe to say that I am the only member of this body who was born in Selma, AL, arguably one of the most significant sites in our Nation's struggle to advance the civil rights of all Americans.

As a child of the South born in the late 1950s, it is fair to say that I watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold before my very eyes.

No, I would never pretend to fully understand as a boy what men like my colleague and friend, Congressman John Lewis, went through to advance the cause of racial justice.

There is not another member of this body for whom I have greater respect or hold in higher regard than John Lewis, who, himself, is an Alabama native.

While I was a child watching the Civil Rights Movement progress, he was a young man helping to make it all happen.

And seemingly without malice in his heart, he turned the other cheek time and time again, even as Bull Conner, Jim Clark and others beat him, jailed him, spit on him, cursed him and did everything in their might to break his spirit and determination.

That, Mr. Chairman, is one reason why I have such a heavy burden with this vote.

Let me be clear about one thing: although many of our forefathers did not believe so at the time, the original Civil Rights Act of 1965 was necessary medicine to remedy an age-old ill and we Republicans can be proud--extremely proud--of the lead role our party played in its passage and enactment.

In 1965, racial discrimination was real--especially at the ballot box. In my birthplace of Selma, just over 2 percent of the registered voters were listed as African-American--even though the town of 30,000 people was over 57 percent black.

I remember hearing my parents talk about the numerous injustices that were taking place all over the South ..... of having a separate section for young blacks to watch a movie in the Alco Theater in Camden where I grew up, of having ``Colored'' water fountains at the Wilcox County Courthouse and other symbols--some large, some small--but all of which were intended to divide our country based almost solely on the color of a person's skin.

Mr. Chairman, today we can say with certainty that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was needed and it worked. It did what it was intended to do. And in more ways than we can innumerate, we can thank God that it has changed our country for the better.

The Alabama I grew up in--in the 1960s--is a far cry from the Alabama I am privileged to represent here in this great body today.

Isn't it fitting that the first African-American female to serve our country as secretary of state is none other than a daughter of Birmingham, a lady who, as a little girl, knew the four other children who were tragically killed when a bomb exploded on Sunday, September 15, 1963, exposing the face of evil that reared its ugly head at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Not a day passes when I am not so extremely proud to know that whether on the world stage, where there is so much strife and division, or coming back to help victims of Hurricane Katrina in her home State, Dr. Condeleeza Rice is a person of the highest moral standing, of the greatest integrity and is a shining example to us all.

Mr. Chairman, 50 years after she had been arrested simply for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery to a white man, wasn't it appropriate for our Nation's capitol--this majestic building recognized around the world as a symbol of hope and freedom--to bestow its highest honor by allowing the body of Mrs. Rosa Parks, a former seamstress who went on to become the ``mother of the Civil Rights Movement,'' to lie in state for the Nation--and the world--to mourn her passing?

But, you see, Mr. Chairman, by extending the very provisions that were so necessary and needed in the 1960s--and by imposing for another 25 years the sanctions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act on a region of the country that has changed--and has changed for the better--what we are doing today is merely celebrating the success of the Selma to Montgomery march without acknowledging that the march for justice should continue.

It should continue to Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Volusia Counties in Florida, where many of our colleagues and even more Americans believe with all their hearts that the presidential election of 2000 was stolen by the Supreme Court and a few hundred hanging chads.

If the prescription for suppressing the voting rights of African-Americans and other minorities who were disenfranchised in the South in the 1960s worked--and it did--then why are we not continuing the march for equality and justice for the citizens in Milwaukee and Chicago and Cleveland and the other great cities of our country who, in recent elections, have protested that their right to vote was compromised and their voice in this great democracy was intimidated?

The Alabama of today can boast the fact that there are more African-American elected officials in Alabama than any other state in the nation. That's quite a statement, Mr. Speaker,

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a statement of real progress over the past 40 years. I count many of these men and women as my close friends and partners as, together, we are working to build a better State and region for our children and grandchildren, regardless of the color of their skin.

One person, in particular, whom I count as just such a partner is my friend and colleague, Congressman Artur Davis. On several occasions, Artur and I have held joint town meetings in Clarke County, a county that we both represent, as well as shared the stage in other Alabama cities talking about the progress our home State has made in recent years.

Without a doubt, Artur represents the very best Alabama has to offer; he is not only a rising star on the Democrat side of the aisle, but he is truly a leader whose vision and voice this Nation can benefit from.

Regretfully, on this issue, Artur and I respectfully disagree with each other.

He believes that it would be unconstitutional to make Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act apply to the entire Nation. I, on the other hand, believe if it is unconstitutional for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to apply to the rest of the Nation, then it might well be unconstitutional for it to continue to apply only to those States that were placed under it more than 40 years ago.

Last year, my hometown, Mobile, added a chapter to the rich history of progress that has come our way on this long and often-painful journey in that we elected our first African-American mayor, even though the majority of our citizens and the majority of the registered voters in Mobile are Caucasian.

As Mayor Sam Jones said on election night, ``we are too busy to be divided,'' but Mayor Jones' victory should tell us all that Dr. King's vision of an America where his ``four children will one day live in a Nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,'' that America is more real today, Mr. Speaker, than ever before.

Are we where we need to be?

Have we completed our journey?

Of course not.

But make no mistake, discrimination does not stop at a State line and, sadly, it knows no boundaries. And that is precisely why, Mr. Speaker, I cannot vote for this particular extension of the Voting Rights Act because, at least in my humble opinion, it continues to pretend that the only vestiges of racism and discrimination exist in the nine states and the few other selected counties throughout the country that were originally covered.

And assuming that the four amendments that have been ruled in order--those by Mr. Norwood of Georgia, Mr. Gohmert of Texas, Mr. King of Iowa and Mr. Westmoreland of Georgia--assuming these four amendments all fail, and they most likely will--then what we have left is nothing but a hollow gesture.

It is true that some of our colleagues will most likely march to the microphone later today to declare this as a significant victory but, in all reality, it is nothing more than a very regretful missed opportunity.

Mr. Chairman, I wish with all of my heart that we had spent as much time over the past few months working to expand to the entire Nation the precious right of freedom and the privilege of voting without fear or retribution.

I regret that we were not able to be bold enough to say to the southern States which have shown so much progress that, after 40 years of advancement, we are now ready to move forward and give those areas where the sins of our fathers are no longer committed an opportunity to come out from under the burden of crawling to the U.S. Justice Department, on bended knee, and asking for its blessing to continue on the march for equality.

I truly lament the fact that, as our great Nation is in the midst of an important national debate, one that is focused on how we secure our borders and deal with the all-important matter of having between 11 and 20 million people who are in this country illegally, I can only wish that we had been courageous enough to say, ``if you want to become a citizen of this country and enjoy the many benefits that come with that citizenship, then you need to learn English--which is our national language--and you need to become a full-fledged participant in what has made--and continues to make--us different from almost every other country in the world and that is our right to participate in free elections and self-governance.''

Mr. Chairman, you see for me to cast a vote for this extension is asking me to condemn my beloved Alabama to another 25 years of being punished for mistakes that are no longer being made.

I know in my heart that the drumbeat for justice must continue and the battle for equality is long from over. I know more progress can be made--and will be made--in the coming months and years.

But I also believe, with every ounce of my being, that this bill will have to pass without my support. For the real opportunity to empower people--and bring credibility to the process that we hold so dear--that opportunity is one that could have been but will not be.