Transcript: Rep. G.K. Butterfield’s remarks on voting rights at the 2012 CBC Summit
Edited by Jenny Jiang
Transcript of remarks by Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) on voting rights at the Congressional Black Caucus Summit on May 30, 2012:
“We are here today to talk about voting rights. Voting rights is a conversation that we must have. It’s critically, critically important.
“And for us to understand the full dimension of voting rights, you cannot address the subject in a contemporary context. You’ve got to go all the way back to the end of slavery to 1865.
“When slavery came to an end, there were four million African-Americans in the south. They had no right to vote. They had no education. They had no assets. They had absolutely nothing but faith in God, faith in each other, and faith in community.
“And starting in 1865, the former slaves began to build their community. The first thing they did with the help of whites from the north was to build churches in the south. And many of our churches – and I represent a rural district of North Carolina – many of our churches were founded in 1865, ’66 and ’68. My church was 1872.
“The first thing they did was to build churches. The next thing they did was to build schools, and many of the schools were attached to the church. But the third thing they did was to get involved in the electoral process within the community.
“In 1870, 34 words were added to the United States Constitution, comprising of the 15th Amendment, and those words were very plain and very simple. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
“And based on that amendment, African-Americans began to get involved. And I want you to know that 20 African-Americans were elected to the Congress during Reconstruction. Eight were from South Carolina, four from North Carolina, and other states all across the south.
“But all of them came to an end in 1900 when disenfranchised amendments were added to state constitutions.
“In my state, for example, an amendment was added that required would-be voters to be able to read and to write to the satisfaction of the registrar. It was called the literacy test. The literacy test came in in 1900. Not only that but a poll tax was implemented requiring would-be voters to pay a poll tax.
“So starting in 1900, the last black congressman from the south George H. White, who was from the district that I now represent – all of the black congressmen were unable to get re-elected because all of the African-American voters have been taken off of the voter rolls.
“And so starting in the 1900, there was effectively no participation whatsoever in the electoral process.
“But finally after the 1964 Civil Rights bill passed, Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] was given the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.
“When he came back to this country, he was summoned to the White House by then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson. He was thanked for his work on civil rights.
“And while at the White House, Dr. King looked Lyndon Johnson squarely in the eye and said, ‘President Johnson, now is the time, sir, for a Voting Rights Act.’
“President Johnson said, ‘No, don’t take me there today. You know I’ve just used all of my capital and all of my resources and all of my goodwill in trying to persuade the Congress to pass a Civil Rights Act. We’ve got to wait on a Voting Rights Act.’
“Dr. King said, ‘Mr. President, I’m very disappointed with you, because you know that the 15th Amendment that was added to the Constitution in 1870 really has no meaning for African-Americans today. We need a Voting Rights Act.’
“That’s when Selma to Montgomery took place and all of the violence that you know so much about on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that I’m sure [Rep.] John Lewis would have talked about today. That’s when the Selma to Montgomery voting rights movement began in earnest.
“And, finally, on March 15, 1965, President Johnson called a nationwide press conference to announce that he was changing his position that he would support a strong Voting Rights Act. And he did that. He did that at the peril of a second presidency. He did that at the peril of losing the Democratic influence in the south among white voters. But he did it because it was the right thing.
“And now we have a Voting Right Act.
“When I was in law school 35 years ago, 40 years ago – I suppose – there were no African-American elected officials in my great state. Today, we have some 800 or 900 black elected officials – 300 in my Congressional district alone. And so the Voting Rights Act has made a difference.
“But now, all of this progress that we’ve made is under assault. There is a right wing conspiracy that is alive and well in this country, that is trying to take us back to 1900 and even before. They are coming in very discreet ways.
“The Citizens United case, for example, that now allows corporations to give unlimited amounts of money – anonymous unlimited amounts of money in support of or against a position to political candidates. And it’s working. There are other devices in play, and our panelists today are going to talk with you about that and I thank them for their willingness to come.”
- C-Span.org: Video of the 2012 Congressional Black Caucus summit
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