Voting Rights Act, Immigration Reform on the Agenda for 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

Rebecca Kaplan

For black and Hispanic leaders, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington offers not only a chance to commemorate the civil-rights movement, but also an opportunity to make a high-profile push for some of their top public-policy priorities.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who were already fighting restrictive voter-ID laws in several states, took another hit earlier this year when the Supreme Court gutted part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Meanwhile, advocates for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship have spent the summer urging Republicans to join their cause, but they remain largely at the mercy of the GOP.

Both communities see the themes of the 1963 march—and the call for equal rights and jobs memorialized in Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech—as applicable to the battles they are fighting today.

"What you'll hear is people articulating a national agenda of how we can move both economic and political empowerment forward," said Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., whose state sparked the Supreme Court case over the Voting Rights Act. "We owe it to the legacy of those freedom fighters to continue to make strides forward, not just on the political front, but on the economic front as well."

Although this weekend's march is celebrating an event from 50 years ago, participants are portraying it as the chance to renew the civil-rights movement with a focus on both voting rights and economic inequality. Reps. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chairwoman of the CBC, and John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil-rights icon, will be among those speaking.

"While it is a celebration of the milestones that we've accomplished, the many goals that we've accomplished, at the same time it's a time to guard what we have accomplished," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. "We're talking about basic rights, we're talking about people trying to live the very best lives that we can, we're talking about equality and equity, and I think that, in a way, it's what Dr. King talked about."

Cummings said it would be "political malpractice" to omit the Voting Rights Act as a central topic of the weekend's events. The speakers will address the broad importance of the law, he said, but might also call upon specific members—like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio—to take action.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the formula that determined that nine, mostly Southern states must seek advance approval from the federal government before changing their election laws. That formula, the Court said, was out of date, and without it, the section of the law mandating that states seek preclearance loses its teeth.

The Supreme Court left the law in Congress's hands, saying it could still seek to oversee those states by writing a new formula, but lawmakers have taken only preliminary steps to do so. In June, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Judiciary's Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee held hearings on the Supreme Court decision. Only Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has stressed the importance of quick action to restore the full force of the law.

For now, the Obama administration has shouldered most of the work of individually challenging state laws they find to be discriminatory. On Thursday, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit challenging Texas's new voter identification law. DOJ is also joining an additional suit over the state's redistricting laws.

Meanwhile, the pace of work on immigration reform has slowed significantly since the Senate passed a bill in late June. The House of Representatives left for the August recess with no definitive floor action scheduled on the handful of bills that have come out of committee. There is no pending legislation that addresses a solution for most of the million of immigrants living illegally in the United States.

Proponents of a path to citizenship, who have been actively advocating for an immigration-reform bill over the congressional recess, are using the march to press for quick action on their priorities. Janet Murguía, the president of the National Council of La Raza, told reporters on a conference call that King's speech 50 years ago resonated with the Latino community. "He remains a beloved icon to everyone," she said.

"African-Americans understand the inherent power of citizenship," said Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who spoke to reporters on the conference call with Murguía and others. Leaders from both the black and Hispanic communities have said joining efforts will make them stronger, not dilute either message.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, perhaps the most prominent Democratic advocate for immigration reform, made this case from his own personal experience. "Quite simply, without the march and the movement, there is no Voting Rights Act, and with no Voting Rights Act, there is no majority Latino district carved out in Chicago in 1990," he said. "I wouldn't be on this call as Rep. Luis Gutierrez."