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In Senate, emotional appeal to restore 'heart and soul' of Voting Rights Act

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a leader of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to restore a key section of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court.

By Staff writer / July 17, 2013

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Voting Rights Act on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Wednesday. Congress is considering next steps following the Supreme Court's decision last month to strike down key elements of the law.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

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Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, an icon of the civil rights movement, urged members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to quickly restore a key section of the Voting Rights Act that recently had been struck down as unconstitutional.

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In an emotional appeal, the congressman told his fellow lawmakers in Washington that the US Supreme Court’s decision last month had removed the “heart and soul” of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

“It broke my heart,” he said of the decision. “It made me want to cry.”

“Come walk in the shoes of those who wanted to register to vote, but couldn’t,” he urged the senators.

“Before the Voting Rights Act people stood in immovable lines,” he said, referring to the struggle for African-Americans to vote in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s. “On occasion, a person of color would be asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jelly beans in a jar.”

Congressman Lewis occupies an important place in US civil rights history as one of the leaders of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Some 500 men, women, and children were marching peacefully for the right to vote when they were attacked by Alabama state troopers mounted on horseback. The event came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

It shocked the nation, including President Lyndon Johnson, who worked for quick passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

In its ruling last month, the high court acknowledged that racial and ethnic discrimination were still a problem in the US. But the majority justices said Congress was relying on now-outdated criteria tied to conditions in the 1960s and 1970s to determine which states and local governments would be covered by the VRA’s heightened enforcement requirements.

The challenged sections of the law required covered jurisdictions to obtain prior permission from Washington before carrying out any election changes. The provision proved highly effective in undercutting attempts to deny equal voting rights to minorities.

But state and local governments complained that now – nearly 50 years later – Congress should update its enforcement criteria. The majority justices invited Congress to address the issue and restore the law using more up-to-date criteria.

It remains unclear whether Congress will rise to the challenge. Some analysts suggest that such a measure will not survive the usual partisan bickering. But others say they are hopeful that a new, bipartisan bill will emerge next fall and win wide support.

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