Steps Congress must take to ensure true freedom

August 5, 2015
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Hundreds of thousands of marchers gather around the reflecting pool during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. Reuters/Rowland Scherman/U.S. National Archives

Fifty years ago, when racial lines were etched on maps, entrances to public buildings, and in the embers of burned crosses, the United States, through a combination of expediency, pragmatism and morality, began to break down legal barriers to equality. Washington outlawed de jure segregation and outright subjugation — a racial dynamic the country had long endured.

On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson, with Martin Luther King Jr. at his side, signed the Voting Rights Act. Along with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which King and the civil rights movement had also championed, the United States finally crossed those racial lines. The leap the nation must now take is not that grand — and the public must force its elected leaders to make it.

Congress seems tone deaf to the battle cry of a new generation of disaffected Americans. Aug. 9 marks the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed Ferguson, Missouri, teenager whose killing by a white policeman set off a visceral uprising against state-sponsored violence. As congressional members depart for their August recess, they leave unaddressed many crucial issues laid bare by the nationwide protests following Brown’s death.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson talking with Martin Luther King Jr. in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, March 18, 1966. REUTERS/LBJ Presidential Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have an obligation to speak responsibly and robustly into this moment with transformative legislation in three key areas: voting, criminal justice and education.

For many African-Americans, this moment was a long time in the making — even if it only recently seized the broader American consciousness. Brown’s death and the other racialized killings in the past 12 months collectively revealed an African-American community marked by lack of opportunity and disempowerment. The community that groomed Barack Obama, birthed the civil rights movement and was enslaved far longer than it has been free, reached a boiling point.

It is not alone in its fervor. Many Americans who had embraced the rhetoric of a post-racial America awoke to the reality of festering wounds and the new lashes of indignity on the lives of 40 million fellow citizens.

It was the 1960s when the United States was last this attuned to the mutual suffering of all its citizens under the weight of racism. The four girls killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church, the young Freedom Riders beaten and even murdered and the assassination of civil-rights leaders including King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, helped call the nation to redemptive action. The civil rights movement instigated substantive case law in federal courts and Congress passed life-changing legislation.

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President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders look on in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, August 6, 1965. LBJ Presidential Library/photo by Yoichi Okamoto

The United States is now honoring many legal milestones from that time. Last year marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed separate and unequal public education. It was also the 50th anniversary of Civil Rights Act of 1964, which includes groundbreaking provisions like Title VII to combat discrimination in employment and Title IX to end gender discrimination in public education.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the crown jewel of these civil-rights laws. It ended specific tools of racial discrimination in elections and was equipped to root it out in all forms. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also passed that year, established national oversight of federal funding in public education, to ensure all students had equal access to quality education regardless of income or geography.

These are just a few of the crucial laws birthed by one of the most consequential movements in U.S. history. Congress and the Supreme Court spoke powerfully into a moment of national consciousness.

Now Congress is poised to go on break even as screens across the nation show searing images of black bodies shot, tasered, slammed, punched and even killed by those charged to serve and protect. Not since Birmingham (Alabama) Police Commissioner Bull Connors’ attack dogs were televised for global consumption have the grievances of African-Americans against state and local police been so persistently visible.

Yet the elected officials who have the power to remediate such harms have enacted nothing of consequence that speaks into this moment. Americans have given Congress a pass because of its “dysfunction.” But the nation must end these low expectations and call members to account.

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Investigators at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, after it was bombed on September, 15, 1963. REUTERS/Federal Bureau of Investigation

If Congress takes the responsibility of representative democracy seriously, it will do three things: 1) pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015; 2) draft omnibus criminal-justice reform legislation aimed at ending and reversing the ills of mass incarceration; and 3) revise the primary education law to fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board.

The Supreme Court delivered a devastating opinion in Shelby Country v. Holder (as I wrote here), which gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. But the court invited Congress to update the act to reflect new conditions of voting discrimination. Two years later, there is finally some movement. But not enough.

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), and black, Latino and Asian caucus leaders introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act bill in June, after nearly two years of opposition. Among the bill’s strengths is the use of current electoral conditions to create a federal mandate to pre-approve new election laws and policies in states that have a recent record of voting discrimination. It also allows federal courts to require this pre-approval in jurisdictions where voting rules result in discrimination — intended or not.

The bill, if passed, would also improve transparency in federal elections to ensure all voters receive notice of late-breaking changes in voting rules and have time to challenge changes that appear discriminatory.

Here’s what needs to happen next. The Senate Judiciary Committee must swiftly bring the bill to the floor for a hearing. On this anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, it would be fitting to show continued bipartisan support for the bill’s disabled provision – which received increasing bipartisan support the four times Congress reauthorized it.

If Congress does not act, the 2016 election will be the first presidential race in 50 years in which voters will not have the protections of pre-emptive legislation to stop racial discrimination in elections before it starts. States across the nation have already enacted retrogressive practices and polices that threaten minority voting strength.

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People attend a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in the Harlem section of New York, January 19, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

On criminal-justice reform, Congress has an unprecedented opportunity to stop the damaging effects of mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos. There is growing bipartisan consensus that the U.S. carceral state exacts exorbitant costs — social and financial — that the country can no longer bear. President Barack Obama’s executive action to reinstate federal funding for inmate education as part of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program is a first step in the broader effort to rehabilitate the 5.5 million prisoners and reduce recidivism. Instead of a pilot program, however, Congress should reinstate Pell funding for all those in prison. Reducing incarceration rates, investing more in education overall and stemming the school-to-prison pipeline would yield even greater returns.

Nothing short of a full overhaul of the U.S. criminal justice system — from stop-and-frisk policies to draconian sentencing — would help undo the devastating effects produced by decades of mass incarceration of communities of color in for-profit prisons and the destruction that flows from this.

The minor traffic stops of Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose that proved lethal reveal painful evidence that police encounters with civilians need federal regulation. The proposed Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act lays out some needed interventions and should be supported. But interventions are vital at every point in the criminal-justice system if the United States is to end mass incarceration and re-imagine policing — ground zero of the prison population boom.

Both Republicans and Democrats now make the case against the long-term fiscal and social ills of over-incarceration. Their continuing failure to address it would show a dangerous lack of will.

Third, Congress must demonstrate its commitment to improving the public education system for all students with federal oversight of state school systems to ensure equity and increase quality. Even if Brown had lived, the teenager’s prospects of achieving the American Dream were limited by an under-resourced school in a district in which students scored below proficient in key subjects.

Congress has a crucial opportunity to help reverse this trend as it reconciles competing House and Senate bills. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which has been reauthorized nine times, plays a major role in ensuring equitable distribution of resources and accountability. Because of congressional gridlock, the last reauthorization, the No Child Left Behind Act, expired in 2007 and no path forward could be agreed on.

Last month, the Senate passed a bill, by 81 to 17, that diminishes the national government’s role in overseeing state compliance with the federal law. This unprecedented cut in educational oversight would allow states greater freedom to violate civil rights laws and provide unequal education. The House bill cuts federal accountability even more. Why would Congress lessen the federal role in education when statistics show that racial disparities in achievement and discipline are rife in U.S. educational systems?

The times demand transformative legislation in these three areas. A new generation of activists, ignited by the Black Lives Matter movement, is seeking reforms, re-imagining freedoms unbridled from the limits of political pragmatism. All Americans should listen.

That is where we’ll find the transcendent principles to allow this nation to rise, once again, as a beacon of racial progress baptized by blood. When Congress returns from recess, its members should answer a new movement’s call to act in this moment, creating landmark legislation that this nation can one day celebrate.

2 comments

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Well reasoned, beautifully written.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Young lady..
you have no idea what Johnson did in 1957 as a senator nor what he said in front of two governors while on Air Force One…
Truly sad what these united states have become…ignorance breeding more ignorance…

oh!

or what he did in 1968 as president when he took the US Government from “off-budget” to “on-budget”

but hey..!!

there is “always” an agenda

Posted by madmilker | Report as abusive