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A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator is attacked by a police dog during a 1963 march in Birmingham, Ala.

Congress must parry the thrust of ‘dagger’

The Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Although the court did not deny that voter discrimination still exists, it gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law.

Those justices were never beaten or jailed for trying to register to vote. They have no friends who gave their lives for the right to vote. I want to say to them, “Come and walk in my shoes.”

I disagree that just because the incidence of voter discrimination is not as “pervasive, widespread or rampant” as it was in 1965 that contemporary problems are not a valid basis for scrutiny. In a democracy, one act of voter discrimination should be too much.

It took nearly 100 years, from 1865 to 1965, for effective voting rights legislation to be passed. The advances of the Reconstruction period – when some freed slaves were elected to Congress – were erased in a few short years, and for decades this nation turned a blind eye to some of the worst and most brutal violations of human and civil rights.

Also, the purpose of the Voting Rights Act is not to increase the number of minority voters or elected officials. That is a byproduct of its effectiveness. The purpose of the act is to stop discriminatory practices from becoming law. There are more black elected officials in Mississippi today not because attempts to discriminate against voters ceased but because the Voting Rights Act kept those attempts from becoming law. Just hours after the court’s decision was announced, Texas said it would immediately implement the same voter identification law declared illegal by the Justice Department.

We do not want to go back. We must move forward. I think it is very encouraging that some members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have indicated a willingness to fix this problem. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are already meeting. I call upon my colleagues to join in a bipartisan fashion as we did in 2006 and find a way to protect access to the ballot box for all Americans.

John Lewis is a Democratic representative from Georgia. He wrote this for the Washington Post.

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