Blacks Seek Renewal of 'Sacred' Law; Congress Ponders an Early Reauthorization of the Landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965

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Many black Americans, no matter their economic or social status, view the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as "sacred." It is not uncommon to hear blacks refer to the landmark law in biblical terms.

Such reverence is why lawmakers are pushing for a 25-year reauthorization of the act, a full two years before three of its provisions are set to expire.

"I view it in terms ... as I would the Bible for African-American politicians, when you look at the 1992 elections and the redistricting," said Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

Mr. Watt said the intent and purpose of the law largely was realized in 1992 when the CBC went from 26 members - mostly from cities in the Northeast and West - to 40 members, including several from the Deep South.

"What we know is every letter, every sentence, every paragraph, every page of it was writ in blood," said Barbara Arnwine, director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

During a recent speech in Milwaukee before members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Mrs. Arnwine invoked the names of James Cheney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, civil rights workers who were killed in 1964 in Philadelphia, Miss., for trying to register blacks to vote.

This is a common theme in discussing the Voting Rights Act: Al Sharpton referred to the three men as "martyrs" in his Democratic National Convention speech last summer.

Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a member of the CBC, often is asked to tell the story of the beatings he and countless others suffered during a voting-rights march in 1965 in Selma, Ala.

Many black politicians and civil rights lawyers agree that renewal of the law should not be a partisan tool.

"I am in absolute, full and uninhibited support of Chairman Sensenbrenner in having extensive hearings, on-site hearings and accepting those from other organizations that will conduct their own," Mr. …