Mr. President, I rise today to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and to talk for a few minutes about how Senators can work together to make this a more perfect union and guarantee equal justice under the law to all Americans.
“Freedom Summer” was a campaign in Mississippi to register Black voters during the summer of 1964. In 1964, most Black voters were disenfranchised by law or practice in Mississippi, notwithstanding the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1870. The Fifteenth Amendment provides that “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by … any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
On January 23, 1964, the States ratified the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which provides that “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other [Federal] election … shall not be denied or abridged … by any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.”
The Freedom Summer voting rights initiative was led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), with the support of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (referred to in this preamble as the “CORE”), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Thousands of students and activists participated in 2-week orientation sessions in preparation for the voter registration drive in Mississippi. In 1962, at 6.7 percent of the State’s Black population, Mississippi had one of the lowest percentages of Black registered voters in the country.
Tragically, three civil rights volunteers lost their lives in their attempts to secure voting rights for Blacks. Andrew Goodman was a White 20-year-old anthropology major from Queens College who volunteered for the “Freedom Summer” project. James Chaney was a 21-year-old Black man from Meridian, Mississippi, who became a civil rights activist, joining the CORE in 1963 to work on voter registration and education. Michael “Mickey” Schwerner was a 24-year-old White man from Brooklyn, New York, who was a CORE field secretary in Mississippi and a veteran of the civil rights movement.
On the morning of June 21, 1964, the 3 men left the CORE office in Meridian, Mississippi, and set out for Longdale, Mississippi, where they were to investigate the recent burning of the Mount Zion Methodist Church, a Black church that had been functioning as a Freedom School to promote education and voter registration. The 3 civil rights workers were beaten, shot, and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, after being turned over by local police.
The national uproar in response to these brave men’s deaths, which occurred shortly before enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and helped build the momentum and national consensus necessary to bring about passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
So as we celebrate the anniversaries of these landmarks pieces of civil rights legislation, we are reminded that there is more work to be done. As former Senator Ted Kennedy used to say, “Civil rights is the great unfinished business of America.”
One year ago this week the Supreme Court issued its decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, invalidating the coverage formula that determines which jurisdictions are subject to the preclearance provisions of the Act.
Congress must act to reverse the erroneous decision by the Supreme Court which overturned several important precedents in a fit of judicial activism. As much as we wish it wasn’t so, racism has not disappeared from America and there continue to be individuals and groups who would use our voting system to deliberately minimize the rights of minority voters. Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 after building an extensive record that made a compelling case for the continued need to protect minority voters from discrimination. I strongly agree with Justice Ginsburg’s dissent that ‘in truth, the evolution of voting discrimination into more subtle second-generation barriers is powerful evidence that a remedy as effective as preclearance remains vital to protect minority voting rights and prevent backsliding.’” I am deeply disappointed that the Court put voting rights in jeopardy by ignoring reality and disregarding the power of Congress to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution by ‘appropriate legislation.
I am pleased that the Judiciary Committee held a hearing this week on potential legislative responses to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, and I hope Congress can take up and pass a legislative fix before the mid-term elections.
Congress should also take up and pass the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA), S. 2235, which I have introduced. The Democracy Restoration Act would restore voting rights in federal elections to approximately 5.8 million citizens who have been released from prison and are back living in their communities.
After the Civil War, Congress enacted and the states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, which provides that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Unfortunately, many states passed laws during the Jim Crow period after the Civil War to make it more difficult for newly-freed slaves to vote in elections. Such laws included poll taxes, literacy tests, and disenfranchisement measures.
Some disenfranchisement measures applied to misdemeanor convictions and in practice could result in lifetime disenfranchisement, even for individuals that successfully reintegrated into their communities as law-abiding citizens.
Shortly thereafter Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which swept away numerous State laws and procedures that had denied African-Americans and other minorities their constitutional right to vote. For example, the Act outlawed the use of literacy or history tests that voters had to pass before registering to vote or casting their ballot.
The act specifically prohibits states from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ….. to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the Act in 2006, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Congress is now working on legislation to revitalize the VRA after recent Supreme Court decisions curtailed its reach.
In 2014, I am concerned that there are still several areas where the legacy of Jim Crow laws and state disenfranchisement statutes lead to unfairness in Federal elections. First, state laws governing the restoration of voting rights vary widely throughout the country, such that persons in some States can easily regain their voting rights, while in other States persons effectively lose their right to vote permanently. Second, these state disenfranchisement laws have a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Third, this patchwork of state laws results in the lack of a uniform standard for eligibility to vote in Federal elections, and leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in Federal elections based solely on residence. Finally, studies indicate that former prisoners who have voting rights restored are less likely to reoffend, and disenfranchisement hinders their rehabilitation and reintegration into their community.
In 35 States, convicted individuals may not vote while they are on parole. In 11 States, a conviction can result in lifetime disenfranchisement. Several States require prisoners to seek discretionary pardons from Governors, or action by the parole or pardon board, in order to regain their right to vote. Several States deny the right to vote to individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors. States are slowly moving or repeal or loosen many of these barriers to voting for ex-prisoners.
An estimated 5,850,000 citizens of the United States, or about 1 in 40 adults in the United States, currently cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction. Of the 5,8500,000 citizens barred from voting, only 25 percent are in prison. By contrast, 75 percent of the disenfranchised reside in their communities while on probation or parole after having completed their sentences. Approximately 2,600,000 citizens who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised due to restrictive state laws. In 6 states – Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia – more than 7 percent of the total population is disenfranchised.
Studies show that a growing number of African-American men, for example, will be disenfranchised at some point in their life, partly due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have a disproportionate impact on minorities. Latino citizens are disproportionately disenfranchised as well.
Congress has addressed part of this problem by enacting the Fair Sentencing Act to partially reduce the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine convictions. Congress is now considering legislation that would more broadly revise mandatory sentencing procedures and create a fairer system of sentencing. While I welcome these steps, I believe that Congress should take stronger action now to remedy this particular problem.
The legislation would restore voting rights to prisoners after their release from incarceration. It requires that prisons receiving federal funds notify people about their right to vote in federal elections when they are leaving prison, sentenced to probation, or convicted of a misdemeanor.
The legislation is narrowly crafted to apply to federal elections, and retains the States’ authorities to generally establish voting qualifications. This legislation is consistent with Congressional authority under the Constitution and voting rights statutes.
I am pleased that this legislation has been endorsed by a large coalition of public interest organizations, including: civil rights and reform organizations; religious and faith-based organizations; and law enforcement and criminal justice organizations.
In particular I want to thank the Brennan Center for Justice, the ACLU, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the NAACP for their work on this legislation.
This legislation is designed to reduce recidivism rates and help reintegrate ex-prisoners back into society. When prisoners are released, they are expected to obey the law, get a job, and pay taxes as they are rehabilitated and reintegrated into their community. With these responsibilities and obligations of citizenship should also come the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.
In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act into law, after overwhelming approval and strong bipartisan support in Congress. The legislation expanded the Prison Re-Entry Initiative, by providing job training, placement services, transitional housing, drug treatment, medical care, and faith-based mentoring.
At the signing ceremony, President Bush said: “We believe that even those who have struggled with a dark past can find brighter days ahead. One way we act on that belief is by helping former prisoners who have paid for their crimes. We help them build new lives as productive members of our society.”
The Democracy Restoration Act is fully consistent with the goals of the Second Chance Act, as Congress and the States seek to reduce recidivism rates, strengthen the quality of life in our communities and make them safer, and reduce the burden on taxpayers.
More recently, in a February 2014 speech, Attorney General Eric Holder called on elected officials to reexamine disenfranchisement statutes and enact reforms to restore voting rights.
I urge Congress to continue the fight to protect and expand civil rights in this country, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and as we strive to make this a more perfect union.