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 Our landmark laws ensuring equality are not outdated.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.