This week, during a bicameral, bipartisan ceremony in Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol, members of Congress awarded Selma’s foot soldiers the Congressional Gold Medal. It was a well-deserved tribute to the sacrifices these Americans made in 1965, when marchers in Alabama brought national attention to the denial of their right to vote and spurred passage later that year of the Voting Rights Act (VRA).
Signed by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965, the VRA has been reauthorized on four occasions, each time by a Republican president. Congress most recently voted overwhelmingly in 2006 (98–0 in the Senate, 390–33 in the House) when George W. Bush was in office to reauthorize the law for 25 years. Two senators who voted for that reauthorization, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, spoke at this week’s ceremony to honor the marchers. But in 2016, neither is supporting a proposal in the Senate to restore the law the marchers fought for.
When President Johnson signed the VRA, McConnell, then a law student at the University of Kentucky, was watching in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Forty-one years later as a U.S. senator, McConnell spoke strongly in favor of extending it in 2006. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This a great piece of legislation which has served an important purpose over many years,” he said. “The Voting Rights Act brought about greater justice for all. And while we celebrate that achievement, we must continue to strive for more.”
Sessions, who represents the state where these marchers risked their lives for voting rights, was a lead cosponsor of the law to award the Congressional Gold Medal, which passed unanimously last year. He now sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where voting rights legislation is first considered. In addition to his support for this medal, Sessions should be a cosponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, introduced by the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in June 2015. He could be pushing the committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, to hold a hearing on the bill. McConnell, who controls what comes up for a vote on the Senate floor, could be using his position to influence the committee’s consideration of the bill as well.
But they’re not.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who actually supports a separate bipartisan bill to restore the VRA, also spoke at the Gold Medal presentation, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and saying of the foot soldiers that “They did not only change the way we live; they showed us how to live.” Ryan is right that the marchers — whose actions were the catalyst for the VRA’s eventual passage — showed us how to live. They showed us that America should be a place where racial discrimination in voting is not acceptable, where the silencing of some voices to keep others in power will not be tolerated, and where the equal treatment of all people is required. But today, voting discrimination persistsacross the country and Ryan, as a voting rights supporter and House Speaker, should be taking action to ensure the legacy of Selma’s marchers isn’t further stained.
He, like McConnell and Sessions, has done nothing to advance voting rights in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision that gutted the law in 2013.
At the ceremony, Rep. Terri Sewell, who represents Selma, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged their colleagues in Congress to act.
“There are still modern day barriers to voting. Challenges have weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The cause that the foot soldiers marched for is still so important today,” Sewell told the foot soldiers who were present at the ceremony. “We in Congress should give you the gift of strengthening the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
Leader Pelosi had the same message.
“But the men and women of Selma did not march for medals,” she said. “You marched to pass legislation, and you did. If we really truly value the legacy of the Selma foot soldiers, we must come together, Democrats and Republicans, and pass a renewed, restored, and strengthened Voting Rights Act without any further delay.”
“All of you, men and women alike, had the courage to march forward into tear gas and night sticks for voting rights for our democracy. We should have the courage and the decency to hold a vote in Congress on the Voting Rights Act,” Pelosi said.
A day before the ceremony, one of those courageous marchers, Rev. C.T. Vivian, called the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal “humbling.” But he said there was much more Congress could do to contend with discrimination that — in far too many places — continues today.
“When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, it was like being beaten all over again,” Vivian said. “A medal is a start, but it will not mollify us. The way to truly honor our sacrifice is to restore the Voting Rights Act.”
There is still time for Congress to act before the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA. And while symbolic actions like this week’s ceremony are well-deserved and appreciated, bipartisan proposals in both chambers of Congress continue to languish. As Vivian said, the marchers’ “struggle resulted in a true victory.” The least Congress can do this year is rebuild it.