Good morning. I'm Congressman John Lewis of Georgia.
Just 40 years ago in many parts of the American South, it was almost impossible for people of color to register to vote. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses - as well as violence - were used to deny us this fundamental right.
People stood day-after-day in unmovable lines waiting on the courthouse steps trying to register to vote. And when they reached the front of the line, if they could not answer outrageous questions like, 'How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?' they were turned away. Doctors, lawyers, college professors, business owners, teachers, farmers, housewives were all told they could not read or write well enough to pass the test.
During the 1960's, the struggle to secure this most basic right involved the efforts of many brave Americans across the country. The cost was high: church burnings, bombings, shootings, and beatings.
It required the ultimate sacrifice of ordinary Americans: James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, who simply sought to register voters, Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose death precipitated the famous march from Selma to Montgomery. These names are forever etched in our nation's history; they died for the cause of freedom.
On March 7, 1965, I marched with 600 men and women to draw attention to Jimmie Lee Jackson's death. We left Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma and walked two-by-two down the sidewalk - not in the middle of the street - and when we reached the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge we saw a sea of blue Alabama state troopers.
We kept on marching on that bridge crossing the Alabama River. And Hosea Williams, who was leading the march with me, turned to me and asked, 'John, can you swim?' I said, 'No, Hosea, I can't swim. We're not going back. We're not going to jump. We're going forward.' And we continued to march within steps of the troopers.
We were beaten, tear gassed, and trampled by horses on that bridge. We paid a price, but that's what it took to bring voting rights for people of color in America. The events of 'Bloody Sunday,' as it came to be known, aroused the conscience of the nation. Under President Lyndon Johnson's strong leadership, the nation responded and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. President Johnson signed it into law 40 years ago today.
The Voting Rights Act provided extensive protections by prohibiting any voting practice that would abridge the right to vote on the basis of race. It effectively abolished poll taxes and literacy tests and provided for criminal and civil sanctions against persons interfering with the right to vote.
Our nation's history is one of expanding rights. In 1975, the Voting Rights Act was amended to require bilingual ballots and voting assistance in areas with significant language minority citizens. English-only ballots had the effect of serving as literacy tests for Latinos and Native Americans who were non-English speaking voters. In 1982, the Voting Rights Act was amended to protect the rights of voters with disabilities.
Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, today there are 81 Members of Congress of African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American descent, and thousands of minorities in elected offices around the country.
Our democracy depends on protecting the right of every American citizen to vote in every election. We must honor the legacy of all who died in the struggle for civil rights. We must renew our commitment to remove obstacles to the right to vote. Democrats are committed to protecting the right to vote, and will work to reauthorize and strengthen the sections of the Voting Rights Act that are set to expire.
We cannot forget that people sacrificed and died for the right to vote. They didn't die in Vietnam or Iraq. They didn't die in South America or Eastern Europe. They didn't die in Africa or Southeast Asia, they died right here in the United States, trying to exercise their Constitutional right to vote.
The moral value of our society is defined by the veracity with which we defend the dignity of humankind. We need to continue to address these needs if we want to build an interracial democracy where all Americans are treated with dignity and respect, what I like to call the Beloved Community.
I'm Congressman John Lewis. Thank you for listening.