Amelia Boyton. Fannie Lou Hamer. Diane Nash. Rita Schwerner. Annie Lee Cooper. Coretta Scott King. Viola Liuzzo. In the early 1960s, these courageous women activists joined Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian, Rev. Andrew Young and thousands of others in the tumultuous and often violent struggle for voting rights for African-American citizens in the Deep South. This weekend, thousands of supporters from throughout the country, including President Barack Obama and now-Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), have convened in Selma to commemorate the sacrifices of these activists as well as to reflect on the ongoing struggle for voting rights for all eligible American citizens.
Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, intended to end discrimination in employment and in public accommodations, in 1965 many African-Americans throughout the South were still denied the right to vote. Voter registration was typically handled by county registrars, who frequently established barriers and bureaucratic restrictions such as poll taxes, literacy tests,”‘citizenship” tests and extremely limited hours and days in which voter registration was open. In some counties, the names and addresses of African-American voters were published in the local newspapers, leading to almost inevitable harassment, intimidation, violence, lynching and/or job loss. As a result, in many parts of the South, there were few registered African-American voters and subsequently, almost no political power. In March 1965, the Selma, Alabama, voter rolls were 99 percent white and 1 percent black, despite an almost even distribution in the population of just under 30,000 people.
This month represents the 50th anniversary of a pivotal turning point in that voting rights struggle—the Selma-to-Montgomery March Fifty years ago today, March 7, 1965—a date which became known as “Bloody Sunday” —approximately 600 peaceful marchers were beaten back by 150 state troopers, sheriff’s deputies and possemen on horseback who carried billy clubs and whips. Amelia Boynton, a voting rights activist since the 1930s, was beaten unconscious by Alabama state troopers and sheriff’s deputies as she marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The widely published photograph of her limp and bleeding body horrified the world. Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year old wife and mother of five from Detroit, had volunteered to help in the Selma-to-Montgomery March. She was shot in the head and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan as she drove marchers to the airport only a few hours after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery.
Voter registration drives had been underway throughout the Deep South since at least the 1930s, led by activist groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), NAACP, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded in the late 1950s by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other ministerial leaders throughout the South. The deaths of three civil rights activists during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, ongoing violence against and murders of African-American citizens throughout the South and the deadly violence leading up to and during the march (resulting in the deaths of Ms. Liuzzo, local activist Jimmie Lee Jackson and Boston-based Unitarian minister Rev. James Reeb) spotlighted the urgency of the voting rights issue.
The collective activism of these heroes, along with thousands of other civil rights activists dating back many decades, eventually culminated in the enactment of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965. The VRA outlawed discriminatory practices in voter registration such as literacy tests and poll taxes for local and state elections. States with a history of minority voter discrimination, such as Alabama, were required by the Act to gain the approval of the Department of Justice before changing voting laws, a process known as “preclearance.” The original 1965 law had an immediate effect: By the end of 1965, a quarter million new African-American voters had been added. Congress readopted and strengthened the original VRA a number of times, most recently in 2006.
The Supreme Court’s controversial 2013 decision on voting rights in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the key provision of the Voting Rights Act which required the federal government to pre-approve changes in voting laws in those localities with a history of discrimination. In her scorching dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reaffirmed the criticality of voting rights protection:
Beyond question, the VRA is no ordinary legislation. It is extraordinary because Congress embarked on a mission long delayed and of extraordinary importance: to realize the purpose and promise of the 15th Amendment. For a half century, a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made.
The Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder effectively opened the floodgates to an immediate flurry of vote-suppression legislation and restrictive voter access across the country. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, as we look ahead to the 2016 presidential race, state legislatures around the country are considering hundreds of laws that address voters’ access to the ballot, such as:
- At least 13 states have pending bills for strict photo ID laws or more restrictive voter identity laws;
- At least four states have introduced bills to limit voter registration mobilization efforts;
- At least three states have introduced bills to reduce access to absentee ballots;
- At least one state has introduced legislation to make it harder for students to register and vote
- At least one state has introduced legislation to allocate fewer resources to polling places and give voters less time to vote.
However, despite the discouraging development of these pending bills, there are positive advancements as well. An influx of proposed new legislation represents bipartisan efforts to modernize registration systems, expand early voting, improve access to those with special needs (such as disabled voters) and restore the right to vote to individuals with past criminal convictions. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, members of Congress recently reintroduced a bipartisan bill, the Voting Rights Amendment Act; the bill had previously been introduced in 2014, but the Senate held just one hearing on the legislation and the House refused even to hold a hearing. Under discussion as well is a proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to vote to all eligible citizens.
So beyond the numerous poignant commemorations that will occur this weekend, what is the true legacy of Selma? Why does it matter still? This week Dr. Bernice King, youngest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and CEO of The King Center, delivered an impassioned speech during a mass meeting at the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church in which she warned that we are “confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” If we fail to realize that voting rights are under attack, we risk losing an entire generation of civil rights progress. At the same rally, in the eloquent words of Rev. Dr. William Barber, our return to Selma 50 years after Bloody Sunday must serve as a “holy consecration” and a renewal of America’s commitment to voting rights.
Fifty years after their ultimate sacrifice, the martyrs of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign must not have died in vain. As voting rights advocates march in sober remembrance this weekend, there is still much work to be done.