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Shelby County v. Holder (Voting Rights Act) Before the Supreme Court

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Ms. CLARKE. Mr. Speaker, the struggle for equality and justice through the Civil Rights Movement would not have attained its level of success without dedicated leaders such as Rosa Parks, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev Jesse Jackson Sr., and my colleague, Representative John Lewis who put their lives on the line to make it so

So here we are, nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Supreme Court heard Shelby County v. Holder, the outcome of which holds the possibility of setting our nation back centuries.

Much of the debate regarding Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has been focused on the plight of the south and relevance to the southern perspective as it should. We are all too aware of the blood that was shed to demand basic human, racial equality. However, I stand here today in solidarity with my colleagues to lend a voice and perspective to this debate of Section 5 covered areas outside of Southern States. When most people think of Brooklyn, New York, a progressive mentality comes to mind. However, Brooklyn is likewise a Section 5 covered jurisdiction and historically ``Brooklynites'' have encountered voter discrimination tactics that has resulted in Kings County being subjected to the requirements of Section 5's preclearance rules and provisions.

In 1921, New York State enacted an English-only literacy test that remained on the books through the 1960s. During this time, New York State experienced a ``Great Migration'' from the South, as well as, from Puerto Rico and other areas of Latino decent. Most of these migrants lived in communities such as Harlem in Manhattan, the South Bronx, and the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. At that time, New York State law included a literacy test which proved difficult, if not impossible for people with educational or language barriers. Coincidentally, there were three counties in New York City with low voter turnout in the 1968 elections, due in large part to the fact that these literacy tests could not be passed. This ultimately became the reason why jurisdictions for Section 5 preclearance were extended to specific counties in New York, in particular, Brooklyn, New York.

On May 10, 1967, a federal court ruled that the hodgepodge of gerrymandered congressional districts that snaked in and out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn were unconstitutional, in that they operated ``to minimize or cancel out the voting strength of racial or political elements of the voting population, violated the recently passed Voting Rights Act and deprived one of the nation's largest and densest African-American communities the right to adequate representation.

Andrew W. Cooper, a community activist, was the impetus for this historic change. A year after the Voting Rights Act became law he sued New York State officials in a case called Cooper v. Power. The ensuing legal battle led to the redrawing of the now historically famous 12th Congressional District of New York (the district was later reapportioned to parts of the 11th District and now 9th Congressional District).

The ruling set in motion a monumental shift in voting rights in New York and beyond, redefining political representation for people of color. It was built on the foundation of civil rights gains made in the south and helped push the agenda for Voting Rights nationwide.

As a woman of color, a witness to the re-election of our nation's first Black President, and the U.S. Representative for the Ninth Congressional District, which is a majority-minority district covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, I am deeply concerned by the potential ramifications of this case and the impact of its ruling on people of color and their right to vote.

Most recently a Brooklyn elected official wrote an editorial questioning the validity and significance of Brooklyn's classification as a Section 5 covered jurisdiction. Brooklyn NY has one of the largest concentrations of people of color in the nation. It is also worth noting that another elected official from Brooklyn appeared in ``Black face'', just this Sunday. These types of hostile inquiries and acts erode the fabric of American democracy and speak to the heart of why Section 5 preclearance is vital to the realization of justice and equality.

In many areas, racially polarized voting and the intent to disenfranchise Black voters demonstrate that the requirements of Section Five remain crucial to the basic function of our democracy.

The 9th Congressional district of New York, which I presently represent, was birthed in 1965 when Andrew Cooper brought suit under the Voting Rights Act against racial gerrymandering and in response to widespread and prolific discriminatory voting practices in Brooklyn. This suit gave birth to New York's 12th Congressional district and the election in 1968 of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress to whom I have the distinct honor and privilege of succeeding almost 40 years later.

Even in the years after the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971, people of color remain underrepresented at every level of elected offices.

These are just a few examples of why Section 5, and in particular its preclearance clauses, are essential to ensure that changes to voting rules and practices do not result in voter suppression, retrogression, and discrimination.

Without the existence of majority-minority districts, the voices of millions of Americans will be excluded from Capitol Hill; and their perspectives would not inform public debate. Without Section 5 covered districts, our democracy would exist in form, but not in fact.

When I was elected to Congress in 2006, and after Congress had just reauthorized the Voting Rights Act, I would never have thought that today we would be re-litigating issues that I believed were long since settled and resolved.

It took our nation over 200 years to obtain the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, now less than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law are we truly to be believe that systemic racial discrimination and voter suppression has ended?, I think not!

These advancements in the struggle for equality, permitting All Americans to freely exercise their right to vote will take more than a lifetime to protect and preserve. Jurists of the Supreme Court, a word of advice- If it ain't broke, don't fix it!


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