(WASHINGTON) — Just hours before the unveiling of a new Rosa Parks statue at the U.S. Capitol, civil rights pioneers, young and old, convened on the steps of the Supreme Court to demonstrate for the importance of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Section 5 requires certain states and jurisdictions to have any change in voting procedures approved by the federal government. Sparking outrage from protestors was Justice Antonin Scalia’s comment calling Section 5 “the perpetuation of a racial entitlement.”
“I will not dignify Justice Scalia’s comment by repeating it,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous. “But let us be very clear. The protection of the right to vote is an American entitlement. It is a democratic entitlement. And those who would seek to use incendiary rhetoric from the bench of the Supreme Court should think twice about their place in history.”
Arguments regarding the constitutionality of Section 5 of the law began Wednesday morning in Shelby County, Al. vs. Holder.
“Voting rights are not a racial entitlement, they are an American entitlement, secured by our Constitution, starting with the Preamble, and protected by critical statutes such as the Voting Rights Act,” said the president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, Doug Kendall.
“To erect a statue today of Rosa Parks is historic, it is something long overdue. But to take a chisel and break down the statues of law of the Supreme Court is to have one side of the town make progress and the other side of town go regressive,” said Rev. Al Sharpton prior to the Court’s commencement.
Sharpton claimed the possible removal of Section 5 is an attempt by certain parties to “rob the right to vote.”
Several members of Congress, including representatives from the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian-Pacific American Caucuses, also participated in the demonstration.
“We must answer President Obama’s call in the State of the Union address to shorten lines at polling places to ensure that all citizens can cast their ballots without obstruction or delay,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the steps of the Court.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., spoke on his experience fighting for voting rights in the “Bloody Sunday” Selma to Montgomery civil rights march of 1965.
“We were met by state troopers who shot us with tear gas, beat us with nightsticks, and trampled us with horses,” said Lewis, who went on to speak about the challenges that minority voters still face.
“Literacy tests may be gone, raising questions like how many bubbles on a bar of soap, how many jelly beans in a jar may be gone, but people are using other means, other tactics and techniques” to infringe on the right to vote, said Lewis.
“The Voting Rights Act without Section 5 amounts to an abused Indian treaty,” continued Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Following oral arguments, Martin Luther King III, son of Martin Luther King Jr., made a different point, saying that America should make the voting process “easier, not harder.”
“It is embarrassing to some degree that in our nation, only about 48 percent of the population votes,” said King.
But the attorneys representing Shelby County bit back, claiming Section 5 infringed on certain states’ right to sovereignty.
“We put these states under prior restraint. You cannot change your election law unless the attorney general, a single unelected official, says it’s O.K. And if he doesn’t say it’s O.K., you’ve got to come to Washington…and beg the federal government for the exercise of your sovereignty?” said attorney Bert Rein.
Rein also said Section 5 causes a “substantial financial burden” and said it has cost them more than $1 billion on the state level over the past 25 years.
Shelby County attorney Butch Ellis said, “It’s time to recognize that we and the other covered states need to be considered with the same rights of sovereignty that the non-covered jurisdictions of the country experience.”
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