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Keep the civil rights torch lit 50 years later

By Jack Schlossberg Special to CNN | 8/1/2013, 1:16 p.m.
The March on Washington forced the issue of civil rights onto the national agenda and into the lives of every American of every race.

(CNN) -- On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of Americans marched on the National Mall in support of civil rights. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, asserting the paramount importance of civil rights for all.

The march forced the issue of civil rights onto the national agenda and into the lives of every American of every race. It was the culmination of years of tireless work and perseverance, all involving tremendous risk and quiet courage, much of it receiving little or no attention.

Wednesday, August 28, is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The march was one of the proudest days in our nation's history, a day when all Americans heard what it might sound like to "hear freedom ring." People gathered in excitement over the potential of major progress in the centuries-long struggle for American equality.

In June 1963, President John F. Kennedy had become the first American president to deem civil rights a "moral issue," stating that it was an issue "as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution," that America "will not be fully free until all its citizens are free." Kennedy, however, was assassinated before seeing the full legislative fruits of his labor.

Following this inspiring March on Washington and with the strong support of President Lyndon Johnson, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both major pieces of legislation that placed the primary responsibility and power to protect every citizen's right to vote with the federal government.

Never again would the United States revert to the injustice and immorality of Jim Crow laws, poll taxes and literacy tests that defined and preserved systemic racial inequality in the South before the March on Washington.

Today, the most vital provision of the Voting Rights Act, in effect, no longer exists. The preclearance provision of Section 5 requires Justice Department approval of any significant voting change in a set of nine states and parts of six others covered by a formula in Section 4 on the basis of the states' history of racial discrimination in voting.

Although Attorney General Eric Holder is wisely taking Texas to court under Section 3, experts insist that the crucial remedy was the preventive one provided by Sections 4 and 5. Yet in June, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder.

The court argued that the problem of voter disenfranchisement on the basis of race can no longer be assumed to persist in the jurisdictions identified after extensive congressional hearings in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 2000s. Therefore, the court decided, the crucial means of oversight -- pre-clearance review -- granted to the federal government in Sections 4(b) and 5 might no longer be necessary to secure the ends -- the right of every eligible citizen to vote -- for which those provisions were enacted and frequently re-enacted. Instead, the list of covered jurisdictions would need to be updated by Congress in a continuing manner on the basis of ever-changing data.