Voting museum celebrates anniversary

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 8, 2004

It was a small, unremarkable ceremony witnessed by only a few tourists, but the staff of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute was not going to let the anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 pass by unnoticed.

This Act, after all, would never have been created were it not for struggles of Selma activists who fought and died to earn the right to vote.

One week after “Bloody Sunday” in March of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the Voting Rights bill to Congress.

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The resolution was signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965, to empower the government to oversee voter registration and elections in counties that had used tests to determine voter eligibility. It also banned discriminatory literacy tests and expanded voting rights for non-English speaking Americans.

On the 39th anniversary of the day Johnson signed the bill into law, Voting Rights Museum tour director Joanne Bland led a group of teachers from Charlotte, N.C. through the museum and detailed the events leading to the historic Selma to Montgomery march.

She ended the tour at the main entrance to the museum, where awaiting them was a large icing-covered birthday cake complete with candles.

Lawrence Huggins, organizer of the teacher marches in Selma, was invited to speak before the cutting of the cake.

“Three people died trying to register blacks in Selma to vote,” Huggins said. “It’s important for us to never forget them and what they did for us. There are a lot of black people in politics today because of this act. It was an important milestone for blacks and all Americans.”

Bland then encouraged a group of young teens visiting from Chicago, who had also come to tour the museum, to register to vote when they turned 18.

“On your 18th birthday, the greatest gift you can give yourself is to go to the courthouse and register to vote,” Bland said.

The entire group then sang “Happy Birthday” before blowing out the candles on the cake and enjoying a slice.

Bland said a rumor has circulating around the nation that the Voting Rights Act will expire in 2007.

“This is not true. Blacks will never lose their right to vote, but there are some special provisions in act that are going to expire,” Bland said. “We are getting a petition together to send to the Department of Justice to make these provisions permanent.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the limited time special provisions give the U.S. Attorney General authorization to send federal registrars to counties where the local registrar refuses to register blacks. The special provisions also require some jurisdictions to get approval before implementing new voting practices.

If these special provisions to expire, the DOJ says, they can be reinstated by court order if there is a case of discriminatory practices.

“I wouldn’t want any part of the Voting Rights Act to expire,” Bland said. “The whole thing should be made permanent.”

The special provisions of the Voting Rights Act are expected to expire in 2007 if the President does not extend them.