MADDOW: That was Congressman John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, who led
the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma that day in March 1965. He
was speaking about that experience today on the steps of the Supreme Court.
As the conservative majority on the court seemed to indicate a willingness
to at least consider dismantling the pillars of the Voting Rights Act first
passed in 1965 in the aftermath of that violent day in Selma.
Congressman John Lewis, it`s such an honor to have you here.
LEWIS: Well, thank you so much for having me here. I`m honored to be
MADDOW: That is crazy, because it is intimidating to talk about this
history knowing that you are here, able to tell it yourself. And when we
are thinking about the Voting Rights Act being at risk, it brings into very
sharp relief how very hard-fought it was. I hope you don`t mind me asking
you about some of the history.
When a week after you were beaten so badly on that bridge in 1965, the
president of the United States holds a joint session of Congress and gives
that speech and introduces the Voting Rights Act, where were you? Did you
watch the speech? How did you react to that?
LEWIS: On the night of March 16th, 1965, when President Lyndon
Johnson delivered that speech, I was in the home of a local family with Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. watching and listening to the president.
And at one point when President Lyndon Johnson said, "And we shall
overcome", I looked at Dr. King. Tears came down his face. He started
crying. I cried a little.
And Dr. King said, we will make it from Selma to Montgomery. And the
Voting Rights Act will be passed.
When I look back on that speech, I think it was one of the most
meaningful speeches any American president have given on the whole question
of voting rights or civil rights.
MADDOW: What do you make of the arguments today that however hard-
fought it was in 1965 to get there, that the remedies that were designed to
deal with those problems should no longer apply today, that in effect, as
Justice Roberts said, the South is no longer the South. These problems are
solved. We don`t need these remedies anymore.
LEWIS: I grew up in the South. I lived in the South. I tasted the
bitter fruits of racism. I saw discrimination with my own eyes. I felt
We made progress, but we`re not there yet. There are still methods
and means, devices that have been used to make it hard, to make it
difficult for people to participate in a democratic process. And it`s not
just African-American, but it`s seniors, students, Asian-Americans,
Latinos, and the movement was saying in effect, open up the system and let
all of the people come in. Let everyone participate.
My fear if we get rid of Section 5, we will go farther and farther
back. We made progress, but I say over and over again, we`re not there
yet. So you can argue oh we have an African-American president. We
elected some African-American, Latino officials, some Asian-American
But I tell you, in some of these towns and communities in the South
still represent the old South.
On the issue of Section 5 specifically, which gives the federal
government special power to prevent states and localities from doing things
that are deemed to be discriminatory, it doesn`t let them do them and then
make them subject to lawsuits on behalf, it stops them from doing them. So
it is sort of an extraordinary federal power. That`s what Congress was
considering the extension of in 2006 when it was up for its -- after 25
years after having been renewed.
Ten months of hearings, 21 -- 10 months of debate, 21 hearings, 15,000
pages of evidence, and the vote ultimately in the House was nearly
unanimous. In the Senate, it was 98-0.
That would seem to be a thorough examination of whether or not Section
5 was still needed. Justice Scalia today said we shouldn`t trust that vote
as a real vote. Instead that was a demonstration that there is some sort
of racial entitlement around this issue, and the vote effectively isn`t
LEWIS: I was shocked. I couldn`t believe that a member of the United
States Supreme Court, (INAUDIBLE) it was just nonsense, saying it was
almost the verge of some racist feeling of another period.
And it pained me to hear a member of the Supreme Court saying
something like this. To protect the right to vote, to participate in a
democratic process, you`re going to suggest that it`s some racial
entitlement? We all have a right to vote. Well all have a right to
participate in a democratic process. One person, one vote.
The Congress vote -- we represent the American people, the House and
the Senate. We work hard in a bipartisan coalition to extend the Voting
Rights Act in 2006.
MADDOW: Ninety-eight-to-nothing is a heck of a coalition. That
happens on almost nothing. But the Supreme Court is thinking that wasn`t
enough. It`s remarkable to be there today.
And it is remarkable to have you here, sir. Congressman John Lewis,
Democrat of Georgia. It`s truly an honor. Thank you, sir.
LEWIS: Thank you very much for having me.
MADDOW: Thank you.
LEWIS: Thank you.