Saturday, July 15, 2006

Voting Rights Extended By House Amid Calls for Reparations

Frist sees Senate passage of voting right bill

Fri Jul 14, 2006 10:28 AM ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate majority leader Bill Frist on Friday predicted easy passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act extension by the Senate this year.

"We know what the outcome will be," the Tennessee Republican told a small group of reporters the morning after a 390-33 vote in the House of Representatives.

Most of the landmark 1965 civil rights legislation is permanently in law but some sections have to be periodically renewed by Congress.

Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate reached an unusually harmonious agreement on the Voting Rights extension earlier this year. President George W. Bush supports the legislation.

Frist said he did not yet know whether the vote would be this month or after the Senate returns from its August break, but said passage would be "this year for sure."

Frist said his preference is "the sooner the better" but noted that it can often take time to work through potential procedural hurdles in the Senate.

The House Republican leaders had to abruptly cancel their first scheduled attempt to approve the legislation after a rebellion by mostly southern conservative Republicans who wanted to ease restrictions on states and cities with past violations of minority voting rights.

Ultimately House leaders allowed the conservatives to offer several amendments aimed at changing the bill, all of which failed.

Reparations Movement Quietly Gaining Steam

The Associated Press

Advocates who say black Americans should be compensated for slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath are quietly chalking up victories and gaining momentum.

Fueled by the work of scholars and lawyers, their campaign has morphed in recent years from a fringe-group rallying cry into sophisticated, mainstream movement. Most recently, a pair of churches apologized for their part in the slave trade, and one is studying ways to repay black church members.

The overall issue is hardly settled, even among black Americans: Some say that focusing on slavery shouldn't be a top priority or that it doesn't make sense to compensate people generations after a historical wrong.

Yet reparations efforts have led a number of cities and states to approve measures that force businesses to publicize their historical ties to slavery. Several reparations court cases are in progress, and international human rights officials are increasingly spotlighting the issue.

"This matter is growing in significance rather than declining," said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and a leading reparations activist. "It has more vigor and vitality in the 21st century than it's had in the history of the reparations movement."

The most recent victories for reparations advocates came in June, when the Moravian Church and the Episcopal Church both apologized for owning slaves and promised to battle current racism. The Episcopalians also launched a national, yearslong probe into church slavery links and into whether the church should compensate black members. A white church member, Katrina Browne, also screened a documentary focusing on white culpability at the denomination's national assembly.

The Episcopalians debated slavery and reparations for years before reaching an agreement, said Jayne Oasin, social justice officer for the denomination, who will oversee its work on the issue.

Historically, slavery was an uncomfortable topic for the church. Some Episcopal bishops owned slaves -- and the Bible was used to justify the practice, Oasin said.

"Why not (take these steps) 100 years ago?" she said. "Let's talk about the complicity of the Episcopal Church as one of the institutions of this country who, of course, benefited from slavery."

Also in June, a North Carolina commission urged the state government to repay the descendants of victims of a violent 1898 campaign by white supremacists to strip blacks of power in Wilmington, N.C. As many as 60 blacks died, and thousands were driven from the city.

The commission also recommended state-funded programs to support local black businesses and home ownership.

The report came weeks after the Organization of American States requested information from the U.S. government about a 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Okla., in which 1,200 homes were burned and as many as 300 blacks killed. An OAS official said the group might pursue the issue as a violation of international human rights.

The modern reparations movement revived an idea that's been around since emancipation, when black leaders argued that newly freed slaves deserved compensation.

About six years ago, the issue started gaining momentum again. Randall Robinson's "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," was a best seller; reparations became a central issue at the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa; and California legislators passed the nation's first law forcing insurance companies that do business with the state to disclose their slavery ties. Illinois passed a similar insurance law in 2003, and the next year Iowa legislators began requesting -- but not forcing -- the same disclosures.

Several cities -- including Chicago, Detroit and Oakland -- have laws requiring that all businesses make such disclosures.

Reparations opponents insist that no living American should have to pay for a practice that ended more than 140 years ago. Plus, programs such as affirmative action and welfare already have compensated for past injustices, said John H. McWhorter, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

"The reparations movement is based on a fallacy that cripples the thinking on race -- the fallacy that what ails black America is a cash problem," said McWhorter, who is black. "Giving people money will not solve the problems that we have."

Even so, support is reaching beyond African-Americans and the South.

Katrina Browne, the white Episcopalian filmmaker, is finishing a documentary about her ancestors, the DeWolfs of Bristol, R.I., the biggest slave-trading family in U.S. history. She screened it for Episcopal Church officials at the June convention.

"Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North," details how the economies of the Northeast and the nation as a whole depended on slaves.

"A lot of white people think they know everything there is to know about slavery -- we all agree it was wrong and that's enough," Browne said. "But this was the foundation of our country, not some Southern anomaly. We all inherit responsibility."

She says neither whites nor blacks will heal from slavery until formal hearings expose the full history of slavery and its effects -- an effort similar to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid collapsed.

SCLC Says America Heading Towards Civil Rights Crisis If Voting Rights Act Is Not Renewed

SCLC President Steele Says US at Crossroads Regarding Equal Opportunities

Atlanta, GA ( - The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) says the United States faces "a civil rights crisis" if the Congress does not renew the Voting Rights Act, which helps protect minorities from measures that would restrict their right to vote.

SCLC President Charles Steele declared that the nation is "at a crossroads" in regards to providing equal opportunities to minorities.

"We can see the progress that minorities have made during the social, economic and political transformation over the last 30 years," Mr. Steele said. "But the conservative political climate is threatening to turn back the clock, end the progress, and create a new wave of resentment and hatred towards minorities."

Stalling the reenactment of the Voting Rights Act is the latest example of attempts to turn back the clock on progress, Mr. Steele said, calling it "disingenuous" for Georgia Republican Congressmen Lynn Westmoreland and Charlie Norwood to offer amendments that on the surface would appear to expand voting rights, but actually could lead to the legislation being declared unconstitutional.

"They don't seem to understand that messing with someone's right to vote is serious business," Mr. Steele said. "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others died so African Americans could vote. It is a fundamental right in our society. If efforts succeed that disenfranchise Blacks, it will send the wrong message, and further erode the belief that America can be a place where everyone is treated equal."

The amendment backed by Reps. Westmoreland and Norwood would expand Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to require special scrutiny in 50 states, rather than just the nine states now named in the legislation. In 1965, the six original states - Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia - were singled out because Blacks were systematically denied the right to vote in those states. Ten years later, Arizona, Texas and Alaska were added to protect other minority groups.

"Clearly, the courts would likely reject any effort to spread the law's provisions to states where no evidence was found of discrimination," Mr. Steele said. "The two congressmen should be severely chastised for playing political football with something as important as the right to vote. This is a poison pill amendment intended to kill the Voting Rights Act, not enhance its coverage. It is a travesty that Congress has allowed this tactic to delay the renewal of legislation so important to our nation."

Mr. Steele asserted that the delay in renewing the Voting Right Act, as well as the bitter debate over immigration laws raises questions anew about where America stands in regards to equal rights.

"Is this a nation that will stand as a model to the rest of the world, or is the Untied States taking a step backward, returning to our ugly past in which the color of someone's skin or their religion or gender effects their rights in our society?" Mr. Steele said. "Only time will tell, and how the Congress treats the Voting Rights Act will be an indicator of what we can expect in the future."

Michael K. Frisby

Washington State's Disenfranchised Racial Minorities

Spokane, WA ( - LDF and University Legal Assistance law clinic at Gonzaga Law School (ULA), co-counsel in Farrakhan v. Gregoire, pledged to stand firm in their effort to restore the voting rights of Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans with felony convictions in Washington State, despite an adverse decision from a federal district court judge.

Last week, the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Washington ruled against Plaintiffs' who claimed that Washington State's racially discriminatory felon disfranchisement laws violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thereby dismissing the case in its entirety.

"We are disappointed by this adverse decision, particularly because the Court found that our 'compelling evidence of racial discrimination in Washington's criminal justice system' demonstrates that the ability of racial minorities to 'participate effectively in the political process is clearly hindered,'" said LDF assistant counsel Ryan P. Haygood.

"This decision guarantees that racial discrimination will continue to impermissibly deny the vote to an incredible 1 in 4 Black men in Washington State, and 15 percent of the entire Black population in Washington State."

Though the Court concluded that it "has no doubt that members of racial minorities have experienced discrimination in Washington's criminal justice system," it held that "Washington's history, or lack thereof, of racial bias in its electoral process and in its decision to enact the felon disenfranchisement provisions, counterbalance the contemporary discriminatory effects that result from the day-to-day functioning of Washington's criminal justice system."

The lawsuit was originally filed by a group of Black, Latino and Native American incarcerated individuals, who argued that Washington State was disproportionately denying racial minorities of the right to vote. Collectively, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans represent only 12 percent of Washington's overall population but comprise approximately 36 percent of the state's incarcerated population.

Nationally, more than 5 million Americans have lost their right to vote as a collateral consequence of a felony conviction, more than two million of whom are Black and Latino.

LDF and the ULA are considering all options for challenging the Court's adverse ruling.

Kay Shaw
NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Voting Rights Peril No Longer A Hoax

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Columnist

A few years back former Congressional Black Caucus chair James Clyburn laughingly denounced as a hoax a mysterious email that claimed the Voting Rights Act would be dumped. The email also asserted that blacks would effectively be kicked out en masse from the voting booths. Urban Legends, a popular website that specializes in debunking loose lip gossip and rumors shoved the Voting Rights scare into its top 25 urban legends. The NAACP was so alarmed that some blacks would actually believe the wild talk about the Act's pending scuttle that it quickly issued a statement flatly stating that African-American voting rights were in no jeopardy.

The Justice Department also jumped into the act and issued a fact sheet that detailed the glories of the Voting Rights Act. Last July, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez in a talk at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library at the University of Texas promised that President Bush would back reauthorization.

A month later, on the fortieth anniversary of the Act's passage, Bush effusively praised it and issued a proclamation that declared the anniversary of the Act's signing a "day of celebration." On two occasions afterwards, Bush blithely brushed aside any talk that the Act was in trouble and pledged to promptly sign reauthorization. Senate leaders took the cue and in May pledged that they'd speedily reauthorize it.

The House Judiciary Committee held 10 hearings and compiled more than 12000 pages of documents on the Act. They heaped praise on it, and declared that it played and continues to play a vital role in insuring equity at the polls. With only one dissenting vote, House Judiciary Committee members agreed that the Act should be quickly reauthorized. The Committee even took the unusual step and allowed House Republican reps not on the committee to participate in the hearings. The aim was to head off complaints that House Republicans weren't fully involved in discussing the Act. They could then use that as a ploy to oppose the Act.

Top civil rights organizations took the politicians at their word when they promised swift passage of the Act. There seemed no reason not to. The White House, the House and Senate, from their public pronouncements, seemed as close to bipartisan consent on a bill as ever. But that was an illusion. Two House Republicans screamed political foul about the Act and the parade of favorable hearings and reports, and Congressional and White House pledges suddenly seemed meaningless. The Republicans loudly objected that the bill punished the South. The Senate quickly caved and scrapped planned hearings on reauthorization.

Before the surprise turn of events, it was easy to poke fun at the mystery Voting Rights email as a joke and hoax, in part because the Act seemed fail-safe, but also in part because of the over the top penchant of some blacks to see conspiracies, secret plots, and a hidden hand in every real or imagined calamity that befalls blacks. That includes everything from the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination to the spread of AIDS in black communities.

The Voting Rights Act flap seemed to fit neatly into the pattern of conspiracy doom. The South for a century pulled out every dirty political trick to ban blacks from the polls. The Supreme Court outlawed the all white primary in 1944. President Truman urged Congress in 1947 to pass legislation aimed at easing restrictions on the Jim Crow voting. Congress and the Eisenhower administration backed civil rights bills in 1957 and 1960 that empowered the Justice De partment to bring lawsuits against counties that blocked blacks from the voting booth.

It meant little. The South defied the courts, the Justice Department, presidents, and Congress and still barred millions of blacks from the polls. This made it seem even more plausible that Southern Republicans, just as their counterparts the old Dixiecrats did for decades, could concoct yet another scheme to water down black voting rights.

That probably won't happen. But the Congressional stall has ignited a mad scramble by the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights groups to get wavering Republican House reps and Senators to give ground and put the Act back on track for reauthorization. It may be an uphill fight. This is an election year, and Republicans and Democrats will wage bitter partisan war for every inch of political turf in state and Congressional races. House Republicans, even those that favor reauthorization, are loath to buck other Republicans when the political stakes are high. Though the House has scheduled hearings on the Act this month, it has given no assurance that the hearings are anything more than a formality and it will quickly reauthorize the Act.

House Republicans have done a masterful job in shrouding the Voting Rights Act in controversy and muddying the political waters. While most will eventually vote for authorization, the vote won't come without a fight. That fight has suddenly turned an urban legend into a disturbing political reality.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for, an author and political analyst.

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