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Kennedy Statement at NAACP Annual Convention

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Kennedy Statement at NAACP Annual Convention

"It's an honor to join you at the 97th Convention as you continue the NAACP's historic fight for fairness and equality. Since its founding in 1909, under the guidance of great leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, the NAACP has played a key role in enabling that the nation live up to its highest ideals of fairness, justice, and opportunity for all.

Laws enacted because of many of you in this room have brought greater equality for racial and ethnic minorities. The workplace is more open and the ballot box is more accessible because of the NAACP. With leaders like Chairman Julian Bond, President and CEO Bruce Gordon, and Hilary Shelton from the Washington Bureau, the NAACP continues to lead the way.

As we all know, the battle for racial equality in America is far from over. The landmark national laws of the past four decades have provided a foundation, but the full promise of these laws has yet to be fulfilled. Literacy tests and poll taxes no longer block access to the ballot box, but we cannot ignore the fact that discrimination is sometimes as plain as ever, and that more subtle forms of discrimination are plotted in back rooms and imposed by manipulating redistricting boundaries to dilute minority voting or by systematic strategies on election day to discourage minority voting.

The persistence of overt and more subtle discrimination makes it critical that we reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, which is Congress' greatest contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. For nearly a century, the Fifteenth Amendment promised that race would not limit access to the ballot box, but it took the Voting Rights Act to breathe life into that basic guarantee. And it took organizations like yours and the sacrifice of brave men and women who had the courage to gather at the Edmund Pettis Bridge and face the shameful violence of those who would deny them the right to vote before the nation finally acted.

I'm honored to have fought in the Senate for the Voting Rights Act each time it was before Congress - from the historic passage in 1965 to the votes to strengthen it in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 1992. In memory of Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, we need to all see that the Act is extended and strengthened again.

We had a solid victory last week in the House, where a bipartisan coalition beat back poison-pill amendments to pass the Act by a wide margin. In the Senate Judiciary Committee we take up the reauthorization bill later today and our goal is to have a vote by the full Senate before the August recess.

The Act's temporary provisions don't expire until 2007, but we can't afford to wait until the last minute to extend the Act. We must build on the momentum already achieved in the House and Senate to guarantee the Act will continue to protect the precious right to vote. Each of you should let your Senators know how important it is to have their support for renewing the Voting Rights Act.

Some still question whether there is still a need for the Act's expiring provisions. They even argue that discrimination in voting is a thing of the past, and that we're relying on decades-old discrimination to stigmatize certain areas of the country today.

I've heard the evidence presented over the past several months of hearings, and I can tell you that they're just plain wrong. Yes, we've made progress that was almost unimaginable in 1965. But the goal of the Voting Rights Act was to have full and equal access for every American regardless of race. We have not achieved that goal.

If voting discrimination is ancient history, why has a federal judge in Georgia have to intervene twice to block the state's unconstitutional attempts to impose a discriminatory photo identification requirement for voting that makes it disproportionately hard for minorities to vote?

Judge Murphy blocked the first version of the Georgia law as an unconstitutional poll tax. A poll tax! In 2006! In 1965, we fought the poll tax during the debate of the original Voting Rights Act. After the Supreme Court ultimately held it unconstitutional, we thought this shameful practice had ended. But the court found that the Georgia law was just a 21st Century version of this old evil.

If the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed, how do you explain the Texas legislature shifting 100,000 Latino voters out of a district just as they were about to defeat an incumbent and finally elect a candidate of their choice? The Supreme Court struck down that district last month in the cancelled LULAC v. Perry.

In 1999, the Dinwiddie County Board of Supervisors in Virginia moved a polling place from a club with a large African-American membership to a white church on the other side of town, under the pretext that the church was more centrally located. We saw this tactic when we renewed the Act in 1970. We didn't expect to see it again in on the eve of the 21st century, but we did.

Or how about the town of Kilmichael, Mississippi, which cancelled its elections three weeks before election day, because an African American stood a strong chance of being elected the town's first ever African-American mayor? Was that 1965? No. it was 2001.

These aren't examples of discrimination from the 1960's. They happened only recently, and they make clear that we must act now to reauthorize the Act. The NAACP has been a partner from the beginning and together we will renew it."

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