CONGRESSWOMAN SHEILA JACKSON LEE:
PRAIRIE VIEW A&M UNIVERSITY RALLY AND MARCH
PRAIRIE VIEW - HEMPSTEAD, TEXAS
January 15, 2004
Today, we march and demonstrate not only to show our commitment to the spirit of remarkable legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 and landmark decisions of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which we overcame with Brown v. Board of Education (May 17, 1954), Symm v. United States (1979), and Grutter v. Bollinger (June 23, 2003), but we have come together today to show our commitment to achieving the visions pursued by the great man who was born on this day 75 years ago in Atlanta, Georgia. We marched on July 23, 2003 in Washington, D.C. and in Houston, Texas to pay tribute to the historic march that occurred on August 28, 1963-today is a very appropriate day on which to unite for the right to vote, the right to enjoy civil liberties, the right to due process of the law, and a right to enjoy democracy at work. The students at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) deserve all of the above legal guarantees and rights as set forth under the U.S. Constitution, the United States Code, Texas law, and caselaw as pronounced by the U.S. Supreme Court and Federal Circuit Courts.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, a fellow Texan, signed one of the Civil Rights Acts into law 40 years ago this coming July. With the kinds of threats to Civil Rights that we have seen in Texas just recently-such as the TAMU admissions policy change and the recent redistricting opinion issued by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas and in favor of voter dilution and partisan politics, it appears that Waller County could be taking steps backward and advancing a horrible trend. The issues listed above represent a slow erosion of rights and of respect for judge-made and legislature-made law. This erosion begins as an endemic problem that is slowly spreading to epidemic proportions. Through open lines of communication and alliances of government and community leaders and our leaders of the future-as we have today, we can overcome any challenge to our rights and preserve the rights established by the Legislature, Courts and the work of local activists. A great deal of legal progress is at stake with disposition of all of these issues-voting rights and civil rights of several Texas minorities and students, as well as minorities and students from across the country; respect for national advancement of the principles of democracy, mutual respect, and for the political process itself run the risk of being severely curtailed if we fail to force the legal process to work for us.
From the recent decision of Texas A&M University's board of regents to ignore the legal milestones made under Grutter v. Bollinger, destroying affirmative action, to the recent redistricting decision by the U.S. Federal Circuit Court for the Eastern Division of Texas to the November 5, 2003 letter issued from the District Attorney's office aiming to preclude Prairie View A&M students from voting-all three situations occurring in Texas ironically, there seems to be developing a systematic circumvention of the national progression toward equality and respect for constitutional principles. These profound challenges are illustrative of a pattern of injustice that has been aimed at the fundamental rights of minorities. Partisanship has become a poison pill for minority voters in America, and it will take a united stance to cure the damages that will likely arise unless we force our educators, politicians, employers, and other leaders to adhere to the letter of the law and to well-settled legal precedents issued from the highest Court of the land.
My brothers and sisters, let us not forget that the issue before us today has been litigated and ruled upon by the highest court in the land back in 1979 with Symm v. United States, resulting in a 5-4 vote in favor of the PVAMU students. The Court rejected a Waller County appeal of a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that originally ruled in favor of Prairie View students.
By affirming the lower court decision, the Supreme Court validated the holding of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Houston in U.S. v. State of Texas, rendered in 1978, that enjoined a Waller County voting registrar when it restricted the voting privileges of registered PVAMU students. That Court stated, on page 1255 that:
[It] cannot conceive of any reason why it should not be presumed that student applications for voter registration, like any other applicant, have made their application to register in good faith. Admittedly a student may not be able to state with certitude that he intends to permanently live in the university community, but such a declaration is not necessary to establish domicile.
Furthermore, that decision relied upon Mills v. Bartlett, decided in 1964 as State of Texas authority on this issue with the following:
It is apparent from [Mills] that there is no requirement that a student, in order to establish that he is a resident of the place where he wishes to vote, establish that he intends to remain there permanently or for any particular period of time.
This language alone-some 20 to 40 years later, still establishes that the PVAMU students should not have their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote infringed upon based on domicile.
History tells us that Congress adopted the Voting Rights Acts as a response to the many instances of continuing interference with attempts by African American citizens to exercise their right to vote. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Act in 1966 with the South Carolina v. Katzenbach decision:
Congress had found that case-by-case litigation was inadequate to combat wide-spread and persistent discrimination in voting, because of the inordinate amount of time and energy required to overcome the obstructionist tactics invariably encountered in these lawsuits. After enduring nearly a century of systematic resistance to the Fifteenth Amendment, Congress might well decide to shift the advantage of time and inertia from the perpetrators of the evil to its victims.
South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 327-28 (1966, emphasis added). Today, 38 years later, we ironically see the same kinds of "obstructionist tactics" by political puppets that threaten to mollify and silence our collective voice. The right to vote is "fundamental" to the preservation of our basic rights as citizens of the United States, as enunciated by the highest Court in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 562 (1964).
When the Voting Rights Act was first adopted, only one-third of all African Americans of voting age were on the registration rolls in select states while two-thirds of eligible whites were registered. Now, African American voter registration rates are approaching parity with that of whites in many areas, and Hispanic voters in jurisdictions added to the list of those specially covered by the Act in 1975 are not far behind. Enforcement of the Act has also increased the opportunity of African American and Latino voters to elect representatives of their choice by providing a vehicle for challenging discriminatory election methods such as at-large elections, racially gerrymandered districting plans, or runoff requirements that may dilute minority voting strength. Virtually excluded from all public offices in the South in 1965, African American and Hispanic voters are now substantially represented in the state legislatures and local governing bodies throughout the region. In order to continue this positive trend and to halt the erosive effect on our enlightened public policy, judge-made legal principles, and adopted legislation, we must support these students and continue to push for the registration of individuals who have never exercised their legal right to vote.
I hope that today's demonstration will leave us invigorated and poised to implement the plans that we have devised in response to the challenges made against these students' right to vote. Happy Birthday to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I know that he is with us today in spirit as we come together to fight for equality and respect.