Voices & Choices

Fifty-Seven Years After Selma

Fifty-Seven Years After Selma

The Voting Rights Act is intrinsically linked to the events surrounding Bloody Sunday, what preceded them, and what we as a nation should have learned from them. As time passes and as the efforts to repair the Act do not, we risk losing the lessons of Selma and the statutory activation of the 15th Amendment.

The events surrounding the Voting Rights Act began fifty-seven years ago when Jimmie Lee Jackson marched with a small group in support of voting rights in his hometown of Selma, Alabama. During that protest on February 18th, a viciously and tragically-familiar story unfolded: the unarmed Black man was beaten and shot by Alabama state troopers. Jimmie Lee died days later. On March 7, 1965, hundreds gathered again in Selma – in honor of Jackson – to march along Highway 80 toward the state capital of Montgomery, some 54 miles away. The peaceful demand for voting rights was met by the Alabama state police again who brutalized the unarmed and nonviolent Black marchers, including the late John Lewis. This is what we now know as Bloody Sunday. Later, marchers gathered again to complete the trek to Montgomery.

These events are often credited with turning the tide of public opinion in favor of civil rights activists, paving the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act five months later. But many white Americans stayed firm in their support of the subjugation of Black citizens; when polled by a Harris Survey published in May 1965, only 46% of whites supported the civil rights groups marching for voting rights, with 21% agreeing with the actions of the Alabama government and the rest indicating neither or not sure. In March of 1965 Gallup found that 56% of Americans would disapprove of their clergy engaging in civil rights protests, and in July of that year another Harris Survey found that only 36% of those polled felt that civil rights demonstrations had helped to advance the rights of Black Americans.

Nonetheless, with the support of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson, the Voting Rights Act became law – a rare instance of our political institutions overcoming the popular impulses of oppression.

The law itself was remarkable. Section 2 prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on race or color and, since 1982, it has prohibited laws that have a discriminatory effect, regardless of discriminatory intent. Section 5 requires certain jurisdictions with histories of discrimination to obtain "preclearance" for any new voting practices and procedures. Section 4 created a formula for determining which jurisdictions would need preclearance, and Section 3 allows private actors to request that a jurisdiction be covered by preclearance. 

For 40 years the Voting Rights Act had widespread bipartisan support. In his 2006 floor speech, during the most recent reauthorization, Senator Mitch McConnell stated that the Voting Rights Act had been renewed “periodically… overwhelmingly, and on a bipartisan basis, year after year after year because Members of Congress realize this is a piece of legislation which has worked.” Senator Chuck Grassley stated,

"The right to vote is the very cornerstone of democracy and merits the highest protection of law. People of all races have been guaranteed the right to vote since passage of the 15th amendment in 1870. For far too long, though, this was a right only in theory. Many minorities were discriminated against in the days before the Voting Rights Act was introduced."

That year 16 of the current Republican senators supported the Voting Rights Act and sent it to be signed by President George W. Bush. The Act has long stood as our nation’s monument to not only the life of Jimmie Lee Jackson, but of all who have suffered under, and fought against, the white supremacist desire to keeping voting beyond the reach of others.

However, over the past decade opponents of governmental efforts to address hundreds of years of governmental repression have sought to curtail, undermine, and limit the Voting Rights Act itself and voting rights more broadly. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court held Section 4’s coverage formula unconstitutional by finding it was too outdated. This virtually ended the use of Section 5 preclearance, which FairVote warned against after oral arguments in the case. In Abbott v. Perez (2018), the Court held that state legislatures must be presumed not to be discriminatory in redistricting cases, and that evidence of discriminatory intent in past maps is not sufficient proof of discriminatory intent in a challenged enactment, regardless of similarities. This decision made the use of Section 3 of the Act even more difficult. And in Brnovich v. DNC (2021), the Court limited the application of Section 2 in “vote denial” cases by creating a new standard with numerous burdens to successfully challenge state laws on the basis of their discriminatory effect. 

Against this backdrop, in many ways little has changed among white Americans since Selma. Across the country state legislators are pursuing voting restrictions to the fullest extent possible: from 2010 to 2019, 25 states enacted new voting restrictions, and since the 2020 election cycle at least 19 states enacted additional voting restrictions. Only half of white Americans view voting as a fundamental right, whereas more than three quarters of Black Americans say the same; just under half of white Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement, whereas over 80% of Black Americans do; less than half of white Americans support increased attention on the history of racism in the U.S., whereas three quarters of Black Americans do. One lesson from Selma is that not all white Americans will be convinced of justice and equality, but progress can still be made nonetheless. 

And so, fifty-seven years after Bloody Sunday convinced American leaders to take action, we must ask how we now honor those who have sacrificed and have died for the right to vote? The Supreme Court all but prevents the federal government from identifying jurisdictions with a history of institutionalized discrimination, and forces the federal judiciary to turn a blind eye to all but the most blatant and explicit discrimination; where can we find a recognition of the centuries-long struggle against white supremacy of which the Voting Rights Act was a part? Thelma Dianne Harris, one of the original marchers on Bloody Sunday, in disagreeing with the Court’s rulings, stated, “The Voting Rights Act has been tampered with, and it’s like we’re still fighting for our rights. It’s slowly trying to be taken away from us.”

Despite the bloody past and the distressing present, supporters of institutionalized white supremacy threaten to create an even less democratic future. Due to the march of time, the future will be without the participants of Bloody Sunday themselves, and due to the drumbeat of bigotry, we risk losing the lessons and legal protections that we ought to have gained from that day. While the Voting Rights Act itself is technically in force until 2031, it has effectively hung from the books in tatters since 2013. For nearly a decade, Black voters and other marginalized communities have been without the rights won in Selma, without the guarantees of the 15th Amendment being effectuated, and without protection from exclusion from our democracy. In response, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act was built to repair, as much as possible, the Voting Rights Act. The legislation is also designed to partly combat some of the state-level efforts to disenfranchise voters, including standardizing and simplifying voter registration. FairVote has endorsed an earlier version of the bill. 

At present, the Senate has failed to pass the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissing the need for such legislation and orchestrating its defeat in January. Not a single Republican Senator supported it. McConnell stated that the concern over discrimination in voting “is misplaced because if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.” Less than three weeks after that alarming statement, the Supreme Court took its latest swing at the Voting Rights Act in a decision that suggests the Court may further weaken the protections provided by Section 2. And last month a federal district court decision from Arkansas also interpreted Section 2 in a historically limited way in excluding private parties from bringing suit. Combined, these cases suggest a distressing willingness to further limit Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, the last forceful section left in the legislation after previous Court decisions have rendered Sections 4 and 5 all but toothless and Section 3 nearly impossible to invoke. If the Senate does not pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act now, yet another election will be held without meaningful Voting Rights Act protections for historically disenfranchised voters. There is a strong likelihood that the resulting political climate will either make reauthorization unlikely or meaningless in the face of sustained and expanded judicial assault on voting rights. If we lose the lessons of Selma, we will lose our democracy. 

The present is dark, but one lesson from Selma and the original passage of the Voting Rights Act is that obstacles are meant to be overcome by ordinary and committed people. In the face of violence, substantial public disapproval, and entrenched white supremacy, the blood of a thousand Sundays prevailed fifty-seven years ago. People of conscience and determination can win in the face of incredible odds, though they should not have to. 

So too are the present obstacles – from increasingly bold and violent white supremacy to the intractable nature of the contemporary Senate – meant to be overcome. That is the lesson from Selma that we and our fellow voting reform advocates, who are also filled with conscience and determination, should never forget.

 

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