The Women’s Bar Association of Illinois (WBAI), Black Women Lawyers Association of Greater Chicago (BWLA), Cook County Bar Association (CCBA), National Council of Negro Women-Chicago Midwest Section (NCNW-CMS) and 19 other organizations co-hosted a Midwest Voting Rights Act (VRA) Leadership Summit on January 20, 2006. At the request of the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, our organization invited members to participate in the Summit. The ACLU, American Bar Association (ABA) and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Educational Fund (LCCR) were the sponsors of the event. Each attendee received a notebook containing the agenda, information about the VRA and a CD-ROM and DVD from LCCR titled, “Protect Voting Rights: Renew the VRA.”
The day began with a Welcome from Robert Stein, the Executive Director of the ABA. He emphasized the importance of bar associations becoming actively involved in the effort to extend the Voting Rights Act. Mr. Stein also had the honor of introducing the keynote speaker, Judge Ruben Castillo. In 1994, Judge Castillo became the first Latino judge to serve in the Northern District of Illinois. During his work as the Executive Director of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s (MALDEF) Regional Office in Chicago, Judge Castillo developed his advocacy skills concerning the relevance of the VRA. He focused his speech on the biggest fallacy that exists concerning the VRA: that the VRA is all about increasing minority representation. The reality is that the VRA allows each voter’s vote to count. He provided anecdotal evidence and statistics to emphasize this reality. Judge Castillo ended his speech with a quote from Fred Gray, a long time Civil Rights Attorney, “The Voting Right is the most important element of Civil Rights in America.”
After Judge Castillo’s speech, a panel of experts, who happened to be women, presented information about renewing and reforming the VRA in the current climate. Each of them discussed the expiring sections of the Act. Those are Section 5, Preclearance, and Section 203, Language Minority Assistance. The panelists suggested the strategies that are needed to insure the extension of these sections of the Act in the currently difficult political climate. Each of the speakers was dynamic and informative.
A luncheon was provided during the Summit. The luncheon speaker was Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., of the Rainbow PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) Coalition. His speech provided motivation, as well as a challenge, to the audience. There were three points that were most significant. The first point was the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech” in August of 1963. Reverend Jackson pointed out that the media focused on the dream aspect of the speech. The more important aspect of the speech was the failure of the United States to fulfill the promises of the Emancipation Proclamation from 1863. Dr. King was indicating that one hundred years later the Negro is still languishing. He had come to the Nation’s Capital to cash a check. Dr. King knew that America had defaulted on a promissory note insofar as her citizens of color were concerned. Reverend Jackson surmised that the Emancipation Proclamation was a legal contract that required enforcement whereas the dream was not legally enforceable. The second point was that the candle power of the enlightened minority can change the world. He explained the concept in the context of a darkened room where a single candle will shed light and direction. Reverend Jackson considered the ignorant and shortsighted majority as the darkened room and the enlightened minority as a candle in that darkness which advocates change, fairness and justice. The third point was the importance of student power. He discussed the large populations of students who are eligible to vote. If students in large numbers registered and voted in the elections where they attended school, the issues that the elected officials addressed would be defined by those students. The current student population is not taking advantage of that power. At the end of his speech, the audience gave Reverend Jackson a standing ovation.
The session after lunch was titled, “Can You Hear Me Now? Talking about the VRA in the Public and in the Media.” Bruce Cook, President of the CCBA, was prepared as a spokesperson on the VRA by Renee Ferguson of NBC Channel 5 Chicago and Kate Stewart of Belden, Russonello & Stewart. The final three segments of the day were “Turning Up the Heat,” “Getting Down to Work,” and a concluding session. At the end of the program, a reception was held where one of the expected guests was United States Senator Richard Durbin.
The written materials provided the historical context and frequently asked questions concerning the VRA. In order to understand the importance of the VRA, we must understand its historical background. The VRA was promulgated to guarantee access and opportunity for the ballot box. The Constitution of the United States abolished slavery by the 13th Amendment in 1865, granted the rights of citizenship by the 14th Amendment in 1866, and granted the right to vote by the 15th Amendment in 1869. Although these rights existed by law, the citizens of African ancestry were consistently denied the right to vote either by physical intimidation or local laws which denied access to the polls, particularly in the South. The first VRA was signed into law on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson. Some parts of the Act are permanent while others are set to expire. Two sections which are set to expire in 2007 are Section 5 and Section 203. Section 5 was extended three times. It was extended in 1970 for five years, 1975 for seven years, and 1982 for 25 years. Section 203 and Section 4(f)(4) were adopted and extended in 1975 and extended and amended in 1982 and again in 1992. These particular sections are important because they are legally enforceable and clearly identify the required conduct. Hearings have begun before the House Judiciary Committee to examine the need for the Act.
When the Act was passed, the time limits were determined with the belief and hope that the “bad actors” would come to their senses and allow access to all people. Unfortunately, the bad conduct continues to occur even in this day and age. Due to the importance of the VRA, the ACLU and LCCR have developed coalitions to provide education to communities, speakers and access to information to insure the reauthorization of the VRA. There is up to the minute information at www.renewtheVRA.org. You can also contact the LCCR at firstname.lastname@example.org. The activists who are promoting and advocating for the reauthorization of the VRA believe, as we should, in the words of Dr. King on August 28, 1963: “This is not the time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizer drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.