Civil Rights Advocates Urge Congress to Renew Voting Rights Act

Civil rights advocates urged Congress on Monday to quickly renew provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying the "heart and soul" of the act is under attack by Southern Republicans.

"Martin Luther King's bones must be rattling in his grave that in 2006, these Dixiecrats are being possessed by the ghosts of (the late Sens. Strom) Thurmond and (Herman) Talmadge," the Rev. Joseph Lowery said at a news conference hosted by Concerned Black Clergy.

Members of the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Concerned Black Clergy of Metropolitan Atlanta called on Congress to renew the legislation before their weeklong July 4 recess.

In particular, they criticized Georgia Republican Reps. Lynn Westmoreland and Charlie Norwood, saying the two congressmen and other Southern Republicans who support amendments to the legislation were delaying the renewal of one of the major achievements of the civil rights movement.

The congressmen have argued that renewal of the act unfairly singles out nine states for federal oversight, without crediting them for making strides against past discriminatory voting practices.

Westmoreland spokesman Brian Robinson accused the voting rights advocates of resorting to name calling.

"It's sad that an issue as important as this is going to be muddied by such shameful tactics," Robinson said.

"Congressman Westmoreland is trying to modernize the Voting Rights Act so we can focus more attention on where there are problems today," he said. "Georgia has made tremendous progress and we should be judged on what we're doing today. We should not be judged eternally based on the 1964 presidential election."

Daniel Levitas of the ACLU Voting Rights Project in Atlanta urged people to contact their representatives this week and urge them to renew the act immediately.

"(Section 5) really is the heart and soul of the expiring enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act," Levitas said. "The amendment proposed by Norwood would gut Section 5 entirely. It's basically a 'get out of jail free' card for all of the Section 5-covered jurisdictions."