Blacks seek renewal of ‘sacred’ law

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Many black Americans, no matter their economic or social status, view the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as “sacred.” It is not uncommon to hear blacks refer to the landmark law in biblical terms.

Such reverence is why lawmakers are pushing for a 25-year reauthorization of the act, a full two years before three of its provisions are set to expire.

“I view it in terms … as I would the Bible for African-American politicians, when you look at the 1992 elections and the redistricting,” said Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

Mr. Watt said the intent and purpose of the law largely was realized in 1992 when the CBC went from 26 members — mostly from cities in the Northeast and West — to 40 members, including several from the Deep South.

“What we know is every letter, every sentence, every paragraph, every page of it was writ in blood,” said Barbara Arnwine, director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

During a recent speech in Milwaukee before members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Mrs. Arnwine invoked the names of James Cheney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, civil rights workers who were killed in 1964 in Philadelphia, Miss., for trying to register blacks to vote.

This is a common theme in discussing the Voting Rights Act: Al Sharpton referred to the three men as “martyrs” in his Democratic National Convention speech last summer.

Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a member of the CBC, often is asked to tell the story of the beatings he and countless others suffered during a voting-rights march in 1965 in Selma, Ala.

Many black politicians and civil rights lawyers agree that renewal of the law should not be a partisan tool.

“I am in absolute, full and uninhibited support of Chairman Sensenbrenner in having extensive hearings, on-site hearings and accepting those from other organizations that will conduct their own,” Mr. Watt said.

House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, said hearings likely will begin this fall and continue into the second session of the current Congress.

Mr. Sensenbrenner told members of the NAACP at their convention in July that politics and partisanship would have nothing to do with his support for reauthorization.

But the partisan rhetoric was thick at a recent forum in Atlanta, where Jesse Jackson said “reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act will prevent Florida 2000” from happening again.

The act alone cannot stop irregularities in voter registration and at the polls, but a measure passed by Congress in 2002 — the Help America Vote Act — is expected to prevent such problems in the future.

However, Mr. Jackson told the Associated Press, “The extreme right wing does not want the Voting Rights Act extended, nor do they want it enforced.”

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