President Bush yesterday signed a 25-year extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and vowed to "vigorously enforce" the law, which outlawed racist voting practices in the South and cleared the way for millions of black Americans to vote.
At a packed ceremony on the White House South Lawn attended by members of Congress, civil rights leaders and family members of deceased civil rights leaders, the president said the landmark legislation had broken the "segregationist lock on the ballot box."
"Today, we renew a bill that helped bring a community on the margins into the life of American democracy. My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court," Mr. Bush said. "The right of ordinary men and women to determine their own political future lies at the heart of the American experiment."
The extension of the law bears the names of three women who were active in the early civil rights movement: Fannie Lou Hamer, who was jailed in Mississippi in 1962 for trying to register to vote; Rosa Parks, who was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus; and Coretta Scott King, the late wife of Martin Luther King.
Mr. Bush said he was signing the bill "in honor of their memory and their contribution to the cause of freedom."
But Mr. Bush has not always been a fan of the Voting Rights Act. When he was governor of Texas, he opposed a section of the law that said Texas and other states still practiced voting discrimination.
That part of the original law was designed to target six Southern states that had a history of discrimination against black voters. In the early 1970s, the section was broadened to cover nine states -- Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia -- and parts of seven others -- California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.
Those states and localities must get Justice Department approval every time they change voting laws or procedures -- right down to moving a polling location. With Mr. Bush's signature, that requirement will last through 2032.
There were more than 600 guests on the South Lawn yesterday, including the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson; friends and relatives of the Kings and Mrs. Parks and Dorothy Height, the longtime chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi used the occasion to criticize Mr. Bush, saying his administration had failed to enforce key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
"The president must now ensure that his words are met in the deeds of his administration so that the voting rights of all Americans are truly enhanced by today's action," the Democrats said.