Fifty Years On, Gains Achieved by Those Who Bled in Selma Are Under Attack
'The thing about racism is that it always morphs to undermine progress.'
As political leaders, celebrities, and civil rights activists descend on the city of Selma, Alabama this weekend to commemorate the famous march that culminated in the brutal assault by local law enforcement that became known as 'Bloody Sunday' on March 7, 1965, both veteran participants and a younger generation of racial justice advocates are making it clear that even after fifty years of struggle—despite monumental victories won by those who marched and died for the cause —the ultimate fight aimed at securing equal rights, economic justice, and shared opportunities is far from over.
"When you look around and see how things really are, and see the disparity in healthcare and economics and education and jobs … the struggle still continues." —Fred Gray, civil rights attorneyHaving marched across the now-historic Edmund Pettus Bridge alongside hundreds of others, including Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma on that day fifty years ago, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said this week that for him, the bridge "is a sacred place" because "that's where some of us gave a little blood and where some people almost died." During the police onslaught, Lewis had his skull fractured by a state trooper's billy club.
The Associated Press offered this short depiction of the march, including events preceding and following 'Bloody Sunday,' using clips from speeches and archival footage:
According to Lewis, "That bridge - what happened on that Sunday have changed America forever." As history notes, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the The Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law just months after the 'Bloody Sunday' incident and the march in Selma, which exposed for many the unquestionable brutality of political repression and police aggression in the South. To this day, the march is widely credited as triggering a key shift in national public opinion and provided political traction for the idea that the right to vote was a necessary and key protection that deserved federal legislation.
As columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. writes on Saturday:
By rights, this 50th anniversary of those events should be an unalloyed celebration. After all, the marchers, fortified by men and women of good will from all over the country, eventually crossed that bridge under federal protection, marched for four days up Highway 80 and made it to, as the song says, glory. They stood at the state capital in Montgomery and heard Martin Luther King exhort them to hold on and be strong. “Truth crushed to earth,” he thundered, “will rise again!”
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law. And African Americans, who had been excluded from the ballot box for generations, went on to help elevate scores of citizens who looked like them to the mayor’s office, the governor’s mansion, the White House.
Pitts Jr., however, along with many others, recognizes that even as the historic march deserves commemoration and celebration for the gains it provided or symbolized, there have been tremendous lapses in progress—specifically in recent years—and the persistent ravages of racism, economic inequality, and disparity of opportunity remain deeply ingrained in Alabama, across the South, and beyond.
Fred Gray, an attorney and leading civil rights activist in the sixties, said this week that having been "involved with it from the very beginning and seeing it from totally segregated to where it is now, we've made some progress."
But, he added, "when you look around and see how things really are, and see the disparity in healthcare and economics and education and jobs … the struggle still continues. If anything, it should encourage us to do a better job."
"Celebrations, commemorations and movies make people feel good, but the reality is that voting rights have been rolled back dramatically in recent years." —Hank Sanders and Faya Rose Toure
And take husband and wife couple Hank Sanders and Faya Rose Toure, who in an op-ed in the New York Times on Saturday describe how they settled in Selma subsequent to the famous march in order to make the fight for voting rights in Alabama a temporary commitment, but repeatedly determined—over the course of the five decades since—to remain as they recognized victory for equal access and civil rights remained elusive.
Now in their seventies, Sanders, who serves as U.S. Congressman representing Alabama's 23rd District, and Toure, a civil rights attorney, write:
We came to Selma in 1971, newly married and fresh out of Harvard Law School. Our intentions were to stay for five years. We were sure that by then Dr. King’s vision of voting rights would have been realized. Over 40 years later, not only are the fruits scarce, but the roots are shallow and feeble.
Celebrations, commemorations and movies make people feel good, but the reality is that voting rights have been rolled back dramatically in recent years. The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, striking down a central provision requiring certain states, including Alabama, to obtain federal clearance before changing voting procedures. Since then, several states have limited access to voting by blacks and others. Today, all Alabama voters must show photo identification. In Alabama and other states, this I.D. must be government-issued. These policies, which disproportionately affect minority, poor and elderly voters who are less likely to possess government-issued I.D.s, are the 21st-century equivalent of the Jim Crow-era poll tax and literacy test.
Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, notes how the weakening of the Voting Rights Act at the federal level is made worse by these aggressive state-level attacks, which appear to be directly tied to the positive turnout of minority voters in recent national elections. Weiser writes:
"New assault on voting rights is being ignored by the same lawmakers who are coming to Selma to celebrate." —Cornell William Brooks, NAACPThe push to restrict voting came after a surge in participation among African-Americans and certain other groups in 2008. Recent studies found that the more a state experienced increases in minority and low-income voter turnout, the more likely it was to push and pass laws cutting back on voting rights. The Brennan Center similarly found that of the 11 states with the highest black turnout in 2008, seven passed laws making it harder to vote. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth in the 2010 Census, nine states did so. And of the 15 states that used to face special monitoring under the VRA because of a history of racial discrimination in elections, nine states passed laws that make it more difficult to vote.
Unfortunately, efforts to restrict voting show no signs of abating. In the first few weeks of this year, legislation was introduced in 17 states and already progressed in two.
All this points to an urgent and continuing need for strong legal protections for voting rights — protections sought and won by the brave marchers 50 years ago in Selma.
President of the NAACP Cornell William Brooks marked the anniversary of Selma by voicing celebration for the bravery of those who marched fifty years ago, but also said nobody should lose sight that voting rights are under sustained attack nationwide.
In fact, Brooks added, "this new assault on voting rights is being ignored by the same lawmakers who are coming to Selma to celebrate" the sacrifices of those who were beaten and bloodied on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
"Selma is now," he declared and vowed the NAACP would "not rest until every American has unfettered access to the ballot box" in every state and community across the country.
"When we look forward, we’ve got to think about not just how to we defend what we’ve won and earned, but what the new models and new systems for protections are that we need for the future." —Rashad Robinson, ColorofChangeMeanwhile, younger activists and organizers—such as Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange, and Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza, co-founders of the #BlackLivesMatter project—were asked this week to weigh in on the legacy of Selma in the context of contemporary fights against police violence, structural racism, and other struggles.
Asked by the Washington Post about what's needed to fight back against the attack on voting rights, Robinson said, just like in the 1960s, it will take "a movement" to win the necessary fights.
Reflecting on Selma, Robinson said, "reminds all of us that movements and organizing and advocacy are the fuel that brings about change. Sometimes we think about change being elections and putting certain people in power, but it’s the movement underneath that helps the people we put in power bring about the policies that we want."
He added, "When we look forward, we’ve got to think about not just how to we defend what we’ve won and earned, but what the new models and new systems for protections are that we need for the future."
During a Twitter chat hosted by NBC News this week exploring the intersection of Selma and the current movement for racial justice, Opal Tometi said, "The fight has changed in many ways, but at its core the challenge remain[s] the same."
Regarding the loss of progress on voting rights, she added, "The thing about racism is that it always morphs to undermine progress."
As Pitts, Jr. opined: "It is disheartening that we find ourselves forced to fight again a battle already won. But the events of half a century past whisper to us a demand for our toughness and faith in the face of that hard truth. They remind us that injustice is resilient."
But, he concluded, also resilient is the "truth crushed to earth" that those who marched with Dr. King in 1965 carried with them and those who continue that struggle today so bravely affirm.