From Rosa Parks to the Voting Rights Act: making equal rights a reality for all

OPINION - I will never forget watching President Obama unveil the statue of one of my personal heroes in Statuary Hall last week – allowing civil rights icon Rosa Parks to take her rightful place in our nation’s Capitol...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

I will never forget watching President Obama unveil the statue of one of my personal heroes in Statuary Hall last month – allowing civil rights icon Rosa Parks to take her rightful place in our nation’s Capitol.

At the same time, just across the street, the fundamental promise that Rosa Parks spent her whole life fighting for – equal treatment for all Americans under the law – was under attack at the U.S. Supreme Court.

While Parks was being celebrated for helping to bring down “the entire edifice of segregation,” as the President eloquently put it, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was busy declaring that the basic protections provided to the American people by the Voting Rights Act were a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

His stunning remark shows clearly that our dream of justice and equality for all is still unfinished – even 57 years after Rosa Parks courageously refused to budge from her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

I still remember as a 10-year-old girl being on a bus with my mother in Miami just a few years before Parks’ arrest. I saw an elderly African American woman who didn’t have a seat, so I did the obvious thing: I offered her my seat. It turns out that was illegal in Florida in 1950.  There were snarls and looks of disdain. But my mother stood by me, taking my hand as we both walked to the back of the bus where we stood together.

Because of heroes like Rosa Parks, Americans no longer have to endure the bitter oppression of segregation. But as Justice Scalia’s discordant comments reminded us, our work in ending racial discrimination and protecting voting rights in this country is far from done.

Let’s be clear: Our civil rights movement is not a relic of another era. Our landmark laws ensuring equality are not outdated. And voter suppression is a not thing of the past.

Two hundred thousand voters in Florida know it. That’s how many voters gave up after being forced to wait in elections lines of up to seven hours last year.

Miami’s Desiline Victor knows it. The 102-year-old Haitian-born former farm worker had to stand in line for more than three hours – but she refused to give up until she had made her voice heard.

And Teresa Sharp of Lockland, Ohio, knows it. The 53-year-old African American woman and seven members of her family got letters from a Tea Party-affiliated group last year challenging their right to vote in the presidential election.

Justice Scalia claims that Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 because it was a political imperative – not because we believed the law was necessary.  Unless I am missing something, a Supreme Court Justice – no matter how honored his position – has no extra powers to divine what Members of Congress think when we cast our votes.

As one of the lawmakers who actually cast that vote, let me set the record straight: We voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act based on clear evidence that the law’s protections are still desperately needed today. Our nearly unanimous vote spoke for itself.

Anyone looking for proof of why we need the Act should look no further than last fall’s election. We saw unmistakable evidence of voter suppression targeting minorities. We saw challenges to voter eligibility in heavily African American neighborhoods. We saw GOP leaders boasting that new voter ID laws would help elect their party’s candidates. We saw efforts to limit early voting days, new restrictions that made it more difficult to register to vote, and purges of longtime registered voters from election rolls.

That is why the Voting Rights Act is not a relic of the past. It is a necessary antidote to partisan tactics like “voting dilution,” a redistricting trick where minority voters are either packed into a single district or spread across a large number of districts to reduce their electoral influence. Since the law was passed in 1965, the Department of Justice has blocked hundreds of discriminatory changes like this that would have affected hundreds of thousands of minority voters.

Preserving the Voting Rights Act is not just a good idea – it is a moral imperative.  It took more than a century of struggle to even begin to fulfill the promise of voting rights for African Americans that began with the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race. And that struggle continues today.

It reminds me of what Rosa Parks said when asked why she wouldn’t move from her seat that day. “I just wanted to be free like everybody else,” she said. “I did not want to be continually humiliated over something I had no control over: the color of my skin.”

To keep that promise of freedom and equality for every American, we need to enforce – not overturn – the Voting Rights Act.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Senate Ethics Committee.