Rep. John Lewis Comments on Voting Rights Act Reauthorization
July 13, 2006 -The following is a transcript of the comments Congressman Lewis made today during the debate in support of H.R. 9, the Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006, which reauthorizes the expiring sections of the Voting Rights Act.
"Mr. Chairman, before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, all across the American Southern very few African Americans were registered to vote. Men and women of color stood in unmovable lines. In Lowndes Count, Alabama between Selma and Montgomery, more than 80 percent of that county was African American, but not a single African American was registered to vote.
"Many people were harassed, jailed, beaten, and some were even shot and killed. I cannot forget that in 1965, three young men that I knew--James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andy Goodman-two were white, one was black. They went out to investigate the burning of a church, a church that was to be used to prepare people to pass the so-called literacy test.
"These three young men were arrested, jailed. They were taken from the jail by the sheriff and his deputy beaten, shot and killed. They were killed for trying to help people become participants in the democratic process. During that dark period in our recent past, black men and women who were teachers in public schools, colleges and university professors were told that they could not read well enough, and they failed their so-called literacy test. On one occasion a would-be voter was asked to name the number of bubbles in a bar of soap. On another occasion, a person was asked to count the number of jelly beans in a jar.
"Yes, we have made some progress. We have come a distance. We are no longer met with bullwhips, fire hoses, and violence when we attempt to register and vote. But the sad fact is, the sad truth is discrimination still exists. And that is why we still need the Voting Rights Act. And we must not go back to the dark past. We cannot separate the debate today from our history and the past we have traveled. When we marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, it was dangerous. It was a matter of life and death. I was beaten. I had a concussion at the bridge. I almost died. I gave blood, but some of my colleagues gave their very lives."
"We must pass this act without any amendment. It is the right thing to do, not just for us, but for generations yet unborn. When historians pick up their pens and write about this period, let it be said that those of us in the Congress in 2006, we did the right thing. And our forefathers and our foremothers would be very proud of us. Let us pass a clean bill without any amendments.