Debate on extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 began yesterday with a poignant and emotional journey into the nation's embarassing past -- to the Selma march, the burning of black churches in Georgia and the murders of civil rights workers.
One of the guides was Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a black raised in the South who saw some of its worst days as a young civil righs worker in the 1960s and now is president of the National Urban League.
"As I sit here, I am reminded of the many black and white men and women who are not here today, who were killed in the thick of battle between 1962 and 1967," Jordan told a House Judiciary subcommittee.
"As I sit here, I think of Medgar Evers, Clifton Walker, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, Sam Young Jr. Jonathan Daniels, Freddie Lee Thomas and Vernon Dahmer."
Each was a fallen civil rights worker and, as Jordan read their names, his voice cracked with emotion.
Jordan told how the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Terrell County, Ga., was burned to the ground "with a picture of Jesus and the president of the United States on the wall" several days after a civil rights meeting there.
He told how a black man, 91 years old, explained why he had never bothered trying to register to vote. "I never believed in putting myself in the way of trouble a-comin'," he quoted the old man.
In 1964, the year before the Voting Rights Act became law, 2.8 million blacks in 11 Southern states were registered to vote. Today, there are 4.2 million an increase that civil rights leaders attribute to that act, which required state and local officials in the South to demonstrate that election laws did not discriminate against minorities.
Aug. 6 next year is the date of expiration of a provision that requires Southern states with a history of discrimination to have approval in advance from the Justice Department or a federal court for any election rules change.
Yesterday's hearing opened what is expected to be a long and hard-fought battle over extending the act that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and others have said they want to rewrite.
It was clearly a day for proponents of extension, as some of the civil rights movement's oldest and best friends testified.
Among them were Jordan; Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO; William C. Valasquez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Education Project, and Joseph L. Rauh Jr. of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Each noted the act's symbolic importance to black and Spanish-speaking Americans and urged a 10-year extension.
"In the midst of all the conservatism, the heat and the doubt, and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan," it is important for Congress to "send a message" of continued concern to minorities, Hooks said.
"What happened in the South wasn't happenstance," said Hooks, who grew up in southern Tennessee. "It was brutal. It was intentional. It was mean-spirited. It deprived people of their rights. I have been in situations where I was frightened out of my wits. And I don't want to take the chance of having to go back.
The sharpest questioning came from Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), sponsor of a compromise proposal for and end to federal clearance in advance of changes in local and state voting laws.
". . . A handful of Southern states have been in the penalty box for nearly 17 years," said Hyde, a member of the constitutional rights subcommittee. "They have improved their voting rights record."
"I believe in equality. God knows I do!" Jordan replied. "I do not trust these people in the South with my rights."
Hyde's proposal would require groups with voting-rights complaints to seek relief in federal courts. Rauh charged that Hyde was "antihistorical."
For 95 years, between the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, "court action was a complete failure, and I have no reason to think it would be successful now," Rauh said.