Women’s History Month and the VRA: Honoring the Work of Hamer, Parks & King

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Nearly a decade ago in July 2006, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) for 25 years, and it did so overwhelmingly — 390–33 in the House and 98–0 in the Senate. On the South Lawn of the White House, Republican President George W. Bush signed the extension into law on July 27.

“In four decades since the Voting Rights Act was first passed, we’ve made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending,” Bush said at the law’s signing. “We’ll continue to build on the legal equality won by the civil rights movement to help ensure that every person enjoys the opportunity that this great land of liberty offers.”

Since President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on August 6, 1965, Bush was the fourth president to sign a VRA reauthorization — something only Republican presidents have done. And beyond its tremendous bipartisan support in 2006, the reauthorization was also significant for its title: The Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006.

“This legislation is named in honor of three heroes of American history who devoted their lives to the struggle of civil rights: Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King,” Bush said at the end of the ceremony. “And in honor of their memory and their contributions to the cause of freedom, I am proud to sign the Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act of 2006.”

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Speaking on the House floor that month, now-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D. Calif., said it was “fitting” that the law was named for them. “These women were constant in their pursuit of voting rights,” Pelosi said. “Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery bus boycott. Fannie Lou Hamer electrified the 1964 Democratic Convention where she said, ‘I am sick and tired of being sick and tired’ and was successful in getting her African American delegates recognized at the delegation. Coretta Scott King was the keeper of the flame and one of our nation’s greatest civil rights leaders in her own right.”

Over in the Senate, then-Sen. Chris Dodd, D. Conn., also understood why honoring Hamer, Parks, and King in this way was appropriate.

“These three women worked for a better life and an inclusive society for not only themselves and their children, but also for future generations of Americans,” Dodd said. “They selflessly and nonviolently challenged the laws and customs they believed were wrong. And they were right. Their ability to speak ‘truth to power’ became their legacy. All three are iconic in the fight for the right to vote and a better life for all Americans.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D. Calif., said she admired the women — and that they inspired her to serve in public service in the first place.

Not every lawmaker enthusiastically voted for the 2006 reauthorization. Many had concerns about which states continued to be covered by preclearance. But the near-unanimous passage of the law was an undeniable acknowledgement that the VRA was still needed in the United States, even more than 40 years after Johnson signed it.

In the wake of Bush’s extension, the VRA is not up for reauthorization now until 2031, but the law lost its full strength when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted it in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. The ruling struck down as unconstitutional a key provision of the law that determines which jurisdictions have to preclear any voting changes with the federal government before those changes can go into effect.

The Supreme Court that gutted the law had a historic number of women on the bench. All three dissented, agreeing that the VRA — named for the three women civil rights leaders — should remain intact. In March, while we commemorate Women’s History Month, Congress should consider proposals to restore the law to its full strength and honor Hamer, Parks, and King.

One of those proposals, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, was introduced last June in the House by Rep. Terri Sewell — herself a history-making lawmaker. Sewell is one of the first women — and the first Black woman — elected to serve Alabama in Congress. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R. Va., should pledge this month to honor Sewell’s work by scheduling a hearing on a VRA restoration bill. And his Senate counterpart, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, should do the same. To not do that much would represent a shameful ignorance of Sewell’s work, of the civil rights leaders that the 2006 reauthorization was named for, and of the modern-day racial discrimination in voting that persists still today.