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Justice Scalia, Meet Congressman John Lewis

February 27, 2013

By all indications, conservatives on the United States Supreme Court are preparing give the Voting Rights Act (VRA) thumbs down. Echoing his question four years ago in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, lifelong VRA foe turned Chief Justice John Roberts asked again on Wednesday whether people in the South are more racist than those in the North. Meanwhile, Justice Antonin Scalia announced that the Section 5 federal "pre-clearance" requirement for several, mostly Southern states represents the "perpetuation of racial entitlement."
But before condemning African-American racial privilege he warned would be "reenacted in perpetuity," Justice Scalia would have done well to have a brief chat with Atlanta Congressman John Lewis. After all, the civil rights giant hasn't merely led the fight for the franchise for over two generations. As it turns out, his family denied the vote by Jim Crow for over a century.

If Justices--or any American--needed a reminder of America's bitter experience in the not so distant past, John Lewis provided it last year.
Last March, PBS viewers were reminded of that tragic past last year in the most heart-breaking fashion. In an episode of "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.," Lewis learned an almost unbearably painful irony about his efforts--including the Selma march-- to enable and protect African-Americans' right to vote. An emotionally overcome Lewis discovered (around the 47:00 minute mark above) that his great-great-grandfather's was briefly able to vote in Alabama in the late 1860's before the iron fist of Jim Crow came crashing down.

"Knowing that a member of my family registered and voted in Alabama a hundred years before I did, before my mother and my father, my's just incredible. This is too much."

Then in May, his fellow Georgia Representative Paul Broun prompted Lewis to vividly recall the history of the Voting Rights Act on the House floor. Broun, who in 2010 compared Obamacare to "the Great War of Yankee Aggression," proposed adding an amendment to an already contentious spending bill which would end all funding for U.S. Department of Justice enforcement of Section Five of the Voting Rights Act. "I know firsthand how onerous this law is," Broun protested, "My home state of Georgia, as an example, has long struggled with the U.S. Department of Justice over its voter identification laws." (That Georgia voter ID bill was sponsored by Augusta Republican Rep. Sue Burmeister because, she complained, when black voters in her black precincts "are not paid to vote, they don't go to the polls.") In response, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, John Lewis rose to speak out against Broun's amendment:

Lewis called Broun's suggestion "shameful."
"Maybe some of us need to study a little contemporary history dealing with the question of voting rights," Lewis said, telling of how African-Americans were once forced to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or number of jelly beans in a jar in order to register to vote.
"People died for the right to vote - friends of mine, colleagues of mine."

For his part, Rep. Broun withdrew his amendment designed to kill Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and apologized to John Lewis.
If only Antonin Scalia could bring himself to do the same.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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