Sixty years after Rosa Parks refused to stand up on a Montgomery bus for a white man, Hillary Clinton travelled to Alabama Tuesday to call for an end to discriminatory laws in the United States.
“Our work isn’t finished,” Clinton told a gathering hosted by the National Bar Association’s 60th Anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. “We do have to pay it forward. There are still injustices perpetrated every day across our country, sometimes in spite of the law, and sometimes, unfortunately, in keeping with it.”
In a 28-minute speech at a celebration of the bus boycott set in motion by Parks, Clinton called for criminal justice reform, an end to restrictive voting laws and new gun control measures. She did not mention Parks until the end of her speech. “Even as we celebrate all that our country has achieved in the past 60 years,” Clinton said. “We must in keeping with the legacy of those who have gone before look to the future and the work that is left to do.”
Clinton has made outreach to blacks a central part of her candidacy, speaking in black churches, predominantly minority neighborhoods, and rolling out a series of policy proposals popular with the diverse coalition that helped elect Barack Obama. In the eight years since Clinton overwhelmingly won white and rural voters in the contested 2008 primary, the former secretary of state has shifted her focus to gaining support from a younger and more diverse electorate. Central to Clinton’s push is her opposition of restrictive voting laws, which she and many critics say hurt minorities.
Clinton spoke at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the church steps away from the Alabama state capitol building where Martin Luther King, Jr. helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Alabama is at the center of a controversy roiling voting laws around the country since it become one of the states that in recent years has enacted strict voter ID requirements.
Critics say the laws are a crass Republican election tactic aimed at restricting the vote among minorities and the young, blocs who traditionally support Democrats. “I thought we’d solved that problem,” Clinton said in the church, referring to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “But unfortunately there is mischief afoot. Some people are just determined to to do what they can to keep other Americans from voting.”
She criticized Alabama’s voter ID law, saying, “the right to vote is so fundamental to our democracy but its also about people’s dignity.”
The voter ID rule in Alabama is one of the stricter laws in the country, requiring photo identification rather than just an address or Social Security information. Many Democrats have called foul, accusing Republicans of trying to limit turnout among poorer voters who may not have drivers licenses.
In September, Alabama lawmakers announced the closing of driver’s license offices in order to make savings in the state budget. “Old battles have become new again,” said Democratic Rep. Terri Sewewll, the first black congresswoman from Alabama, shortly before Clinton spoke. “As long as Alabama requires state IDs and closes DMVs, there’s work to do.”
Republicans have shot back at the criticism, saying the voting laws are crucial in protecting against voter fraud.
“I think it frankly is semi-insulting” to criticize an “attempt to make certain people who vote are actually voters,” said Republican strategist Karl Rove in an interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer last week. “One of the most precious thing we have as Americans is our ballot and nothing should be done that allows that ballot to be watered down by fraud.”
Clinton has called for a number of measures meant to roll back voting restrictions proposed in Republican states. She has proposed for universal and automatic voter registration, requiring states to automatically register citizens to vote when they turn 18. Clinton also supports a 20-day early in-person voting nationwide, and legislation to restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was partially struck down by the Supreme Court.
“What part of democracy are Republicans afraid of?” Clinton often says on the campaign trail. Last month she called the Alabama law “a blast from the Jim Crow past.”
Clinton served as the first chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession of the American Bar Association, a cousin to the National Bar Association, whom she addressed.
In her remarks, Clinton also paid homage to the lawyers who led the effort to end segregation, including Fred Gray, the 84-year-old black attorney who represented Rosa Parks and spoke before her, as well as civil rights lawyers Louis Stokes and John Doar and others.
“These jurists endured death threats and cross burnings. They were reviled by many of their neighbors,” Clinton said. “They didn’t back down because they too believed in the Constitution and the rule of law.”
Voting rules are crucial for Democratic election efforts, and Clinton is joined by wider efforts on the left to expand voting. A group led by former President Barack Obama aides, iVote, has been pushing for automatic voter registration. Clinton’s campaign lawyer, Marc Elias, is behind lawsuits in Ohio and Wisconsin that challenge restrictive voting laws, and Democrats are plotting other efforts across the country.
Clinton also in her speech mentioned having sat next to Rosa Parks at the State of the Union address in 1999, saying she remembers Parks receiving a standing ovation from members of Congress.
Clinton has broad support among African Americans, which her primary rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has struggled to nick into. Rev. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a prayer after Clinton spoke, asking the Lord to “grant great favor, grace and anointing to Hillary.”