WASHINGTON — Civil rights leaders said Thursday that President Bush's signature to extend the 1965 law against racist voting practices would be just a footnote in history if the government failed to enforce it.
At a bill signing ceremony at the White House to extend provisions of the Voting Rights Act, Bush pledged to stand behind the law that opened polls to millions of black Americans.
"Today, we renew a bill that helped bring a community on the margins into the life of American democracy," Bush said. "My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court."
Noting the president's words on enforcement, civil rights activist Al Sharpton said: "You can bet we'll make sure that he keeps his pledge."
Sharpton called on Bush to meet immediately with civil rights leaders to talk over how the Justice Department will monitor the enforcement of the act. "Today's events represent a significant victory for African Americans, but a complete victory it is not," Sharpton said.
Activists accuse the Bush administration of politicizing the Justice Department's civil rights division, and say it has turned a blind eye to voter suppression tactics, such as photo identification provisions and citizenship requirements, in states across the nation.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Bush rightly talked of "enforcement" and how the "work for a more perfect union is never ending." But he said civil rights leaders must be assured that the administration would protect the law against efforts in the courts to undermine it.
"I think he should be proud of signing it, but the Department of Justice must be vigorous in enforcing it," Jackson said.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said there would be disagreements about whether civil rights leaders thought the act was being properly enforced. "But, look, it's the president's job as the head of the executive branch to see that the laws are faithfully executed, and he'll continue to do it," Snow said.
The Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed five months after the Selma march, ended poll taxes, literacy tests and other election devices that had been used for decades to keep blacks from voting.
By signing the bill, Bush renewed -- for 25 years -- several provisions of the law set to expire next year. They include one requiring jurisdictions with large populations of voters who do not speak English to print ballots in several languages and provide other assistance.
"In four decades since the Voting Rights Act was first passed, we've made progress toward equality, yet the work for a more perfect union is never ending," Bush said.
The Republican-controlled Congress, eager to improve its standing with minorities ahead of the November elections, pushed the bill through even though key provisions were not set to expire until next year. Black support for Republicans in elections has hovered around 10% for more than a decade. Bush drew 11% of the black vote in 2004 when he ran against Democrat John F. Kerry.
The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 98 to 0 and the House 390 to 33 -- overwhelming majorities that belied the difficulties in getting it passed.