Forty years ago today, in a nationally televised ceremony, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act. While the immediate effect of the act was the registration of a quarter-million African American voters, more impressive is its enduring legacy: Today there are more than 16 million African American registered voters, 43 black members of Congress and thousands of minorities elected to state and local legislative offices throughout the country. Few pieces of legislation in U.S. history have had such a lasting and positive impact on our civic culture.
As a young member of the House of Representatives, I was proud to cast my vote in favor of the Voting Rights Act, along with the entire Kansas delegation. I also had the opportunity to watch Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen employ his impressive negotiating and advocacy skills to ensure that the act would not be successfully filibustered. In fact, the version of the Voting Rights Act introduced and supported by the Johnson administration was drafted in Dirksen's Capitol office.
Although Republicans were a minority in Congress at the time, it's a little-remembered fact that a greater percentage of Republicans voted for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 than did Democrats. In the Senate, all but two Republicans supported the act on final passage -- 93 percent of the Republican caucus, compared with 73 percent of Senate Democrats. On the House side, 82 percent of Republicans supported the act's passage, as did 78 percent of Democrats. The same was true with the Civil Rights Act of the year before: A substantially greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats in both houses supported its passage.
When the Voting Rights Act came up for reauthorization in 1982, I was pleased to craft the compromise extending its "pre-clearance" enforcement provision for 25 years and ensuring that voting rights violations could be challenged in federal court. I was also gratified when President Ronald Reagan signed the reauthorization into law, calling the right to vote "the crown jewel of American liberties."
Of course, the primary focus of the civil rights battles of 40 years ago was on securing basic legal rights: the right to vote, the right to eat at a restaurant of your own choosing, the right to seek and retain employment without being judged by the color of your skin. While unlawful discrimination persists in America, shame now attaches to those who engage in it and are exposed. Most Americans believe that racial discrimination is wrong and should be punished. This fact is a testament, in part, to the power of legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to transform public attitudes.
Today we confront other obstacles to opportunity that are not necessarily rooted in a lack of basic rights but that nevertheless demand both legislative and cultural responses. How can we expect a young child, for example, to learn to read and write if the school she attends is racked by violence or poisoned by low expectations? How does a young boy become a young man if there are no appropriate male role models in his home or even in his neighborhood? How does a minority entrepreneur fulfill her dream of owning a business if she is crushed by the burden of excessive taxes and regulations? And who can deny the harmful impact of a popular culture that too often portrays destructive behavior as acts without consequence? Responding effectively to these complex challenges is the civil rights agenda of our time.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman is engaged in an outreach campaign not only to attract greater numbers of African Americans to the Republican Party but also to ensure that the party listens to the concerns of this community. His message is compelling -- "give us a chance and we will give you a choice" in education, housing, retirement security and other matters of concern to Americans. Let's hope that he succeeds in this important mission.
I certainly don't expect sensational results overnight, but I am confident that the GOP will become what it must be: grand in the sense of being inclusive and a welcome home to men and women from all segments of our society.
The writer, a former Republican senator from Kansas, served as Senate majority leader and was the 1996 Republican presidential nominee.