Wow! Thank you so very much. I cannot tell you how personally honored I am to be here with all of you, to be at this historic institution. Let me start by thanking President Rudley, everyone at Texas Southern university. It’s a great treat to be here, to have heard just briefly from Dr. Rudley and others about the incredible programs and progress and the fact that you graduated more than 1,000 young people into the world not so many days ago. This institution is the living legacy, the absolute embodiment of Heman Marion Sweatt and the long struggle for civil rights. and for me, to be surrounded by so many here in Houston, Texas, and indeed from across our country, who were part of that movement is especially touching. I am delighted to be here with my friend, Sheila Jackson Lee, she has been a tireless champion for the people of the 18th District and state and the country.
I have to tell you though I thought she would tell you about the most important news coming out of Congress. And that is she is finally a member of the grandmother’s club. And as a member of now a little over eight months, it is the best club you will ever be a member of, Sheila. I have to tell you I was excited to come here and to talk about an issue that is important to Barbara Jordan and should be important to all of us. But to do so in front of Dr. Freeman is a little daunting. I mean anyone who knows what this man has meant, not only to Barbara Jordan but to so many who have studied here who have been in anyway effected by his brilliant teaching, elocution and delivery would be a little daunted too. I noticed that both Dr. Rudley and Dr. Sheila both got off before Dr. Freeman came up.
I also want to say my thoughts and prayers are with all the families in Houston and across Texas affected by the recent terrible flooding. And I am confident that this community will embrace them. I remember very well coming here after Katrina with my husband, and in fact we decided to invite along a young Senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama, along and with Sheila and other leaders in the community. We toured the facilities that Houston had provided to those who were fleeing that horrific storm. And I saw how people had opened their hearts and their homes. This is a city that knows how to pull together, and I’m confident you’ll do so again on behalf of those who are suffering from this latest terrible disaster.
And it is also a special moment to be here, knowing that Barbara Jordan was succeeded by Mickey Leland and the 18th District was so well represented for so long, and I am delighted to be here with Alison and to remember the pioneering work he did on behalf of children and the poor and hungry. So many issues that he was the champion of. And I want to thank Rosemary McGowan and all the friends and loved ones of Barbara Jordan here today. This is such a particular honor for me because the award is in memory of one of my true personal heroes—a woman who taught me and so many others the meaning of courage and determination in the pursuit of justice.
I first met Barbara Jordan when I was a young attorney and had been given a position working for the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee investigating Richard Nixon, and it was such a profound moment in American history. And there wasn’t anyone who was a more effective eloquent inquisitor than Barbara Jordan.
As a 26-year-old fresh out of law school, as some of you are perhaps now having graduated from the Thurgood Marshall School here at TSU, I was riveted and not a little intimidated to tell you the truth by this unstoppable Congresswoman from Texas. I got to talk with her, which was thrilling, I got to hand her papers, which was equally exciting, but mostly I got to watch and listen to her.
At a time of shaken confidence, she stirred the entire nation with her words.
Remember what she said: “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete; it is total.”
It was that passion and moral clarity that took Barbara Jordan from the TSU and the halls of Texas legislature all the ways to the halls of Congress. The first woman and the first African American ever elected to represent Texas in the House of Representatives.
And she defended and continued the civil rights legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and her friend and mentor President Lyndon Johnson—and in particular she was a staunch advocate for the Voting Rights Act, which had helped make it possible for her to be elected.
In 1975, in the face of fierce opposition, Barbara Jordan led the fight to extend the special protections of the Voting Rights Act to many more Americans, including Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans as well.
And like every woman who has run for national office in this country in the last four decades, I stand here on the shoulders of Barbara Jordan and so does our entire country.
And boy do we miss her. We miss her courage, we also miss her humor, she was funny and most of all her irresistible voice.
I remember talking to her and Ann Richards one time. And between the two of them, forget trying to get a word in at all. And they were telling me about how they would love to go to the University of Texas women’s basketball games. Right, and Barbara would be there by that time in her wheelchair, and Ann would be holding court right next to her. And Barbara would be yelling directions like she was, you know, the coach. “Why are you doing that? Jump higher! That’s not a pass!” You know, all of those kinds of sideline comments. And so Ann was telling me this, with Barbara right there and I finally turned to her and said, “Barbara, encourage these young women, don’t just criticize them.” And Barbara turned around and said, “When they deserve it, I will.”
We sure could use her irresistible voice. I wish we could hear that voice one more time.
Hear her express the outrage we feel about the fact that 40 years after Barbara Jordan fought to extend the Voting Rights Act, its heart has been ripped out.
And I wish we could hear her speak up for the student who has to wait for hours for his or her right to vote. For the grandmother who’s turned away from the polls because her driver’s license expired. For the father who’s done his time and paid his debt to society but still hasn’t gotten his rights back.
Now we know, unfortunately, Barbara isn’t here to speak up for them and so many others. But we are. And we have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what’s really going on in our country—because what is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other.
Because since the Supreme Court eviscerated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, many of the states that previously faced special scrutiny because of a history of racial discrimination have proposed and passed new laws that make it harder than ever to vote.
North Carolina passed a bill that went after pretty much anything that makes voting more convenient or more accessible. Early voting. Same-day registration. The ability of county election officials to even extend voting hours to accommodate long lines.
Now what possible reason could there be to end pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and eliminate voter outreach in high schools?
We should be doing everything we can to get our young people more engaged in democracy, not less.
In fact I would say it is a cruel irony—but no coincidence—that Millennials, the most diverse, tolerant, and inclusive generation in American history, are now facing so much exclusion.
And we need look no further than right here in Texas. You all know this far better than I, but if you want to vote in this state, you can use a concealed weapon permit as a valid form of identification—but a valid student ID isn’t good enough?
Now, Krystal Watson found out the hard way. She grew up in Louisiana but came to Marshall, Texas, to attend Wiley College. Krystal takes her responsibilities as a citizen so seriously that not only did she register to vote in Texas, where she was living and would be for a number of years, she even became a deputy registrar to help other people vote as well. But this past year, when she showed up at her local polling place with a Wiley College ID, she was turned away.
Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of registered voters in Texas may face similar situations.
And while high-profile state laws like those in Texas and North Carolina get most of the attention, many of the worst offenses against the right to vote actually happen below the radar. Like when authorities shift poll locations and election dates. Or scrap language assistance for non-English speakers—something Barbara Jordan fought so hard for.
Without the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, no one outside the local community is likely to ever hear about these abuses, let alone have a chance to challenge them and end them.
It’s not a surprise for you to hear that studies and everyday experiences confirm that minority voters are more likely than white voters to wait in long lines at the polls. They are also far more likely to vote in polling places with insufficient numbers of voting machines.
In South Carolina, for example, there’s supposed to be one machine for every 250 voters. But in minority areas, that rule is just often overlooked. In Richland Country, nearly 90 percent of the precincts failed to meet the standard required by law in 2012. Instead of 250 voters per machine, in one precinct it was more than 430 voters per machine. Not surprisingly, people trying to cast a ballot there faced massive delays.
Now there are many fair-minded, well-intentioned election officials and state legislators all over this country. But this kind of disparity that I just mentioned does not happen by accident.
Now some of you may have heard me or my husband say one of our favorite sayings from Arkansas, of course I learned it from him. “You find a turtle on a fence post, it did not get there on its own.” Well, all of these problems with voting did not just happen by accident. And it is just wrong, it’s wrong to try to prevent, undermine, inhibit Americans’ rights to vote. Its counter to the values we share. And at a time when so many Americans have lost trust in our political system, it’s the opposite of what we should be doing in our country.
This is the greatest, longest-lasting democracy in the history of the world. We should be clearing the way for more people to vote, not putting up every roadblock anyone can imagine.
Yet unfortunately today, there are people who offer themselves to be leaders whose actions have undercut this fundamental American principle.
Here in Texas, former Governor Rick Perry signed a law that a federal court said was actually written with the purpose of discriminating against minority voters. He applauded when the Voting Rights Act was gutted, and said the lost protections were “outdated and unnecessary.”
But Governor Perry is hardly alone in his crusade against voting rights.
In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker cut back early voting and signed legislation that would make it harder for college students to vote.
In New Jersey, Governor Christie vetoed legislation to extend early voting.
And in Florida, when Jeb Bush was governor, state authorities conducted a deeply flawed purge of voters before the presidential election in 2000.
Thankfully in 2004 a plan to purge even more voters was headed off.
So today, Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of?
I believe every citizen has the right to vote. And I believe we should do everything we can to make it easier for every citizen to vote.
I call on Republicans at all levels of government with all manner of ambition to stop fear mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say.
Yes, this is about democracy. But it’s also about dignity. About the ability to stand up and say, yes, I am a citizen. I am an American. My voice counts. And no matter where you come from or what you look like or how much money you have, that means something. In fact, it means a lot.
I learned those lessons right here in Texas, registering voters in south Texas down in the valley in 1972.
Some of the people I met were, understandably, a little wary of a girl from Chicago who didn’t speak a word of Spanish. But they wanted to vote. They were citizens. They knew they had a right to be heard. They wanted to exercise all the rights and responsibilities that citizenship conveys. That’s what should matter because when those rights are denied to anyone, we’re all the worse for it. It doesn’t just hold back the aspirations of individual citizens. It holds back our entire country.
That’s why, as a Senator, I championed a bill called the Count Every Vote Act. If it had become law, it would have made Election Day a federal holiday and mandated early voting opportunities. Deceiving voters, including by sending flyers into minority neighborhoods with false voting times and places, would have become a federal crime. And many Americans with criminal convictions who had paid their debts to society would have finally gotten their voting rights back.
Well today, with the damage to the Voting Rights Act so severe, the need for action is even more urgent.
First, Congress should move quickly to pass legislation to repair that damage and restore the full protections that American voters need and deserve.
I was in the Senate in 2006 when we voted 98 to zero to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act after an exhaustive review process.
There had been more than 20 hearings in the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. Testimony from expert witnesses. Investigative reports documenting continuing discrimination in covered jurisdictions. There were more than 15,000 pages of legislative record. Now that is how the system is supposed to work. You gather the evidence, you weigh it and you decide. And we did 98 to nothing. We put principle ahead of politics. That is what Congress needs to do again.
Second, we should implement the recommendations of the bipartisan presidential commission to improve voting. That commission was chaired by President Obama’s campaign lawyer and by Governor Mitt Romney campaign’s lawyer. And they actually agreed. And they set forth common sense reforms, including expanding early, absentee, and mail voting. Providing online voter registration. Establishing the principle that no one should ever have to wait more than 30 minutes to cast your vote.
Third, we should set a standard across our country of at least 20 days of early in-person voting everywhere—including opportunities for weekend and evening voting. If families coming out of church on Sunday before an election are inspired to go vote, they should be free to do just that. And we know that early in-person voting will reduce those long lines and give more citizens the chance to participate, especially those who have work or family obligations that make it difficult to get to the polls on Election Day.
It’s not just convenient—it’s also more secure, more reliable, and more affordable than absentee voting. So let’s get this done.
And I believe we should go even further to strengthen voting rights in America. So today I am calling for universal, automatic voter registration. Every citizen, every state in the Union. Everyone, every young man or young woman should be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18—unless they actively choose to opt out. But I believe this would have a profound impact on our elections and our democracy. Between a quarter and a third of all eligible Americans remain unregistered and therefore unable to vote.
And we should modernize our entire approach to registration. The current system is a relic from an earlier age. It relies on a blizzard of paper records and it’s full of errors.
We can do better. We can make sure that registration rolls are secure, up to date, and complete. When you move, your registration should move with you. If you are an eligible vote and want to be registered, you should be a registered voter—period.
Now, Oregon is already leading the way modernizing its system, and the rest of the country should follow. The technology is there. States have a lot of the data already. It’s just a matter of syncing and streamlining.
Now, all of these reforms, from expanded early voting to modernized registration, are common sense ways to strengthen our democracy. But I’ll be candid here, none of them will come easily.
It’s going to take leadership at many levels.
Now more than ever, we need our citizens to actually get out and vote for people who want to hear what is on their minds.
We need more activists working to expose abuses, educate Americans about their rights, and hold authorities accountable for protecting them. Some of the worst provisions in recent laws have been blocked or delayed by tireless advocates raising the alarm and filing legal challenges. But they can’t do it alone.
We need more grassroots mobilization efforts like the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina to build momentum for reform.
We need more Justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote, I mean the principle underlying our Constitution, which we had to fight for a long time to make apply to everybody, one person, one vote and we need a Supreme Court that cares more about protecting the right to vote of a person than the right to buy and election of a corporation.
But of course, you know what we really need? We need more elected leaders from Houston to Austin to Washington who will follow in the footsteps of Barbara Jordan and fight for the rights and opportunities of everyday Americans, not just those at the top of the ladder. And we need to remember that progress is built on common ground, not scorched earth.
You know, when I traveled around the world as your Secretary of State, one of the most frequent questions I was asked was, “How could you and President Obama work together after you fought so hard in that campaign?”
People were genuinely amazed, which I suppose is understandable, considering that in many places, when you lose an election or you oppose someone who wins you could get imprisoned or exiled—even killed—not hired as Secretary of State.
And it’s true, I was surprised when the President asked me to serve. But he made that offer, and I accepted it, because we both love our country.
So my friends, here at this historic institution let us remember that America was built by people who knew that our common interest was more important than our self-interest. They were fearless in pursuit of a stronger, freer, and fairer nation.
As Barbara Jordan famously reminded us, when the Constitution was first written, it left most of us here out. But generations of Americans fought and marched and organized and prayed to expand the circle of freedom and opportunity. They never gave up and never backed down.
And nearly a century ago on this very day, after years of struggle, Congress finally passed the 19th amendment to give women the right to vote in the United States.
So that is, that is the story of progress, courageous men and women, expanding rights, not restricting them. And today we refuse, we refuse to allow our country or this generation of leaders to slow or reverse America’s long march toward a more perfect union.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren to fight just as hard as those who came before us did. To march just as far. To organize just as well. To speak out just as loudly. And to vote, every chance we get for the kind of future we want.
That’s what Barbara Jordan would do. That’s what we should do in honor of her.
Thank you, and may God bless you.