The President Commemorates the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

John Lewis: Mr. President,
thank you for inviting us to the White House today
to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the
Voting Rights Act. The struggle for the right
to vote has been a long, hard, tedious struggle to
redeem the soul of America. And the struggle
is not over. We are still trying to build
a true democracy in our country to let every
citizen have a voice in the political process. Now Mr. President, my staff
with my suggestion and recommendation prepared a
quote long introduction and I don’t think we need it. We know why we are here. Just a few short years ago
— 50 years ago — came to the White House, met with
President Lyndon Johnson. Then we left the White House
and went up on Capital Hill for the signing of the
Voter Rights Act of 1965. I was twenty-five years old
had all my hair and a few pounds lighter. (laughter) But just think, 50 years
ago all across the American south it was almost
impossible for people of color to register to vote. People stood in
unmovable lines. Had to pass a so-called
literacy test. African American lawyers,
doctors, college professors, and teachers, housewives,
and farmers were asked to count to the numbers of
bubbles on a bar of soap, the number of jelly beans in
a jar, people were beaten. Some arrested, some jailed,
some even murdered. But we didn’t give up. We didn’t give in. We kept the faith and we
kept our eyes on the prize. Because of that effort —
the marches, the stand ins, the mass meetings, the
rallies, the songs and music — but blacks, whites,
Latinos, Asian American and Native American came
together on one accord. We remember what A. Phillip Randolph said at the
march on Washington, “Maybe our foremothers and our
forefathers all came to this great land in different
ships but we all in the same boat now.” Today that
is so true today. That we must look out for
each other and care for each other. In spite of all of the
changes, in spite of all of the progress there’s a
deliberate systematic effort to make it harder and more
difficult for minorities, for people of color, for
low-income people, for students, for seniors
to participate. There are forces that want
to take us back but we’ve come to far. We’ve made too much progress
and with this President we’re saying we’re
not going back. We’re going forward. So, Madame Attorney General
and to each and every one of you it is my great pleasure
and my delight to say a few words about the President. He is a champion of
democracy who led us to believe in the equality in
human dignity of all of our fellow Americans. When historians pick up
their pens and write about the 21st century, they will
have to say that President Barack Obama used his power
wisely to help open up the political process and let
all of our people come in. Ladies and gentlemen, I
present to you the President of the United
States, Barack Obama. (applause) The President: Thank
you, everybody. (applause) Thank you. Thank you so much. Everybody have a seat. Thank you. First of all, I
love John Lewis. (applause) And I don’t know
where he gets the energy, where he gets the drive,
what stores of passion he’s still able to muster after
fighting the good fight for so long. I do know that many of us
would not be here in this auditorium today had it not
been for the heroism and dedication of
Congressman John Lewis. So I’m so
appreciative of him. (applause) I’m proud to be joined
by our Attorney General. Loretta Lynch has already
shown herself to be a champion on behalf of not
just the powerful but the powerless, and is, every
single day, along with her team, fighting to make sure
that we are all equal in the eyes of the law, and that
everybody is getting a fair shot. And so we are very grateful
for her presence here today. (applause) And I want to thank all
of our partners, all the organizations, all the
leadership from around the country that is represented
in this auditorium but also are listening over this live
feed as we reaffirm our commitment to one of the
most fundamental, sacred rights of any democracy —
that is the right to vote. As John indicated, 50 years
ago today, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act
into law to protect this precious right. It broke down legal barriers
at the state level and at the local level that were
keeping African Americans from exercising their
constitutional right to vote. And all of us have a great
debt to not just John Lewis, but the thousands — many
of them unnamed — who were courageous enough to walk up
and try to register time and time again, that were
threatened because of their efforts to register —
sharecroppers and maids and ordinary folks. Had it not been for them
awakening the conscience of a nation, the President
could not have mustered the political support that was
required to ultimately get this seminal law passed. We had the opportunity to
honor some of the sacrifices that were made earlier this
year in Selma, along with 100 members of Congress — Democratic and Republican members. It was heartening to see
the bipartisan attendance. It signified that in
the abstract, at least, everybody today believes
in the right to vote. Conceptually, everybody is
in favor of the right to vote. (laughter and applause) You
will not hear anybody defend the notion that the law can
discriminate against persons because of their color,
or their faith, or their ethnicity, when it comes
to going to cast a ballot. That’s huge progress, a
normative shift in how we think about our democracy. Everybody in theory is
supposed to be included. But part of the reason we’re
here today, part of the reason it’s so important for
us to focus attention on this right is because in
practice, we’ve still got problems. On the ground, there are
still too many ways in which people are discouraged
from voting. Some of the protections that
had been enshrined in the Voting Rights Act itself
have been weakened as a consequence of
court decisions and interpretations of the law. State legislatures have
instituted procedures and practices that, although
on the surface may appear neutral, have the effect of
discouraging people from voting, may have a
disproportional effect on certain kinds
of folks voting. And if, in fact, those
practices, those trends, those tendencies are allowed
to continue unanswered, then over time the hard-won
battles of 50 years ago erode, and our
democracy erodes. And that means that the
decisions that are made in the corridors of power all
across this country begin to reflect the interests of
the few, instead of the interests of the many. So we’ve got serious
business to attend to here. One order of business is
for our Congress to pass an updated version of the
Voting Rights Act that would correct some of the
problems that have arisen. (applause) And I said when I was in
Selma that we’re glad you’re here, members of Congress,
but we’ll be even more glad, we’ll be in an even more
celebratory mood, if you go back to Washington and
reaffirm America’s commitment to what was
fought for here at this bridge. Now, so far, that
hasn’t happened. John Lewis is
ready to do it. There’s legislation pending. There are people of goodwill
on both sides of the aisle who are prepared to move it. But it keeps on
slipping as a priority. Part of the reason we’re
here is to reaffirm to members of Congress, this
has to be a priority. (applause) If this isn’t
working then nothing is working. We’ve got to get it done. (applause) At the state levels, we’ve
got some outstanding members of state legislatures —
California, Florida — who have been championing
mechanisms to get more people voting: Early voting,
online registration. But sadly, too many states
are making it harder for folks to vote — instituting
photo ID laws that on the surface sound good; if you
poll the average American, they’ll say, yes, you have
to show your photo ID. But in practice, it turns
out that for seniors and for poorer folks, that’s
not always easy to do. And by the way, it doesn’t
actually address a real problem because there are
almost no instances of people going to vote in
somebody else’s name. (applause) It’s just not a
— it turns out it’s just not a common crime. (laughter) Folks, might think
about shoplifting. Attorney General, you
know more about the crime statistics than I do, but I
am certain, because we’ve actually looked at the data
on this, that almost nobody wakes up saying, I’m going
to go vote in somebody else’s name. (laughter) Doesn’t happen. So the only reason to pass
this law, despite the reasonableness of how it
sounds, is to make it harder for folks to vote. You’ve got state
legislatures that are rolling back early voting. I don’t understand why
anybody would be opposed to spreading out voting so that
people can arrange to vote depending on their schedule. Because it’s hard — if you
are working the midnight shift, and got to get your
kid to school, and had to travel by bus, and you’re
a single mom — it may be difficult for you to be able
to vote precisely in that window that’s provided. And there’s no evidence
that, as a consequence of early voting, that has
increased fraud; that people somehow have become less
committed to democracy; they don’t feel that same sense
of civic pride as they do if there’s just one
day of voting. There’s no evidence of that. The reason to roll back
early voting is because you want to make it harder
for folks to vote. So, in theory everybody is
in favor of the right to vote. In practice, we have state
legislatures that are deliberately trying to make
it harder for people to vote. And some of them, frankly,
are not that shy about saying so. (laughter) Think about that. Think about that. How can you rationalize
making it harder for people to vote? How can you rationalize
penalizing people because they don’t have a lot of
money not being able to vote? That’s contrary
to who we are. That’s not what we believe. That’s not what John
Lewis fought for. In the United States of
America, we should have no patience and no tolerance
for laws that aim at disenfranchising
our fellow citizens. So we got to keep pushing. At the federal level, we
need a new Voting Rights Act passed. At the state and local
levels, we’ve got to fight back against efforts to make
it harder to vote and we got to embrace those legislators
that are prepared to make it easier to vote. But there’s one last aspect
to this, and that is the job of citizens in actually
exercising the franchise. This isn’t always a popular
thing to say in front of progressive groups —
everybody is fired up, and rightly so. But the reason that the
voting rate in the last midterm election was
30-something percent is not attributable to a photo I.D. law. The fact of the matter
is that far more people disenfranchise themselves
than any law does by not participating, by not
getting involved. So, yes, we have to be
vigilant in pushing back against laws that seek to
disenfranchise people. Yes, we should be fighting
back against laws, for example, that say ex-felons,
no matter how long they’ve been living a correct life,
no matter how well they’ve paid their dues, that they
can never vote again in that state. There are all kinds of
battles we have to fight. But we miss the forest for
the trees if we don’t also recognize that huge chunks
of us, citizens, just give away our power. We’d rather complain than
do something about it. We won’t vote, and then
we’ll talk about the terrible political process
that isn’t doing anything. And I like barber shop talk. (laughter) I like
grumbling and complaining. I can’t always
do it in public. (laughter) But what I know
is it doesn’t get anything accomplished. So the groups that are here
today, one of the things that we’re looking forward
to is how do we mobilize, how do we galvanize, how do
we get people focused not only on laws but also on
our habits — our habits of citizenship? How do we instill in people
a sense of why this is so critically important? And that is why we are
proclaiming September 22nd, National Voter
Registration Day. (applause) September 22nd. And we’re going to have
groups fanning out all across the country. And on September 22nd,
we’re going to try to get everybody to
register to vote. We probably won’t get
everybody, but we’re going to try. I want to thank so many of
you who are involved in this, including the NAACP,
which started their Journey to Justice — a march from
Selma to Washington earlier this week — because you’re
shining a light on this issue. And I want to make sure
that we are fully mobilized across the country
on September 22nd. The bottom line is everybody
here has a part to play. Members of Congress need
to do the right thing. State legislators and
governors, they need to do the right thing. Businesses — make it easier
for your employees to vote. Do the right thing. Universities, other civic
institutions — help register people to vote;
provide civic education. Do the right thing. Most of all, citizens —
seize the power that you have. Make this democracy work. Do not succumb to cynicism. Heroic things happen when
people get involved. Heroic things happen when
a young man without any official title joins up with
a bunch of other young and not-so-young people of every
color and every persuasion and are willing to
march across a bridge. That’s the power
that is in all of us. We got to take
advantage of it. Thank you very
much, everybody. God bless you. (applause)

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