Bending Toward Justice

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The Voting Rights Act: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

February 25, 2019

In March 2015, President Barack Obama had just completed a stirring address and the sun was shining on scores of old civil rights foot soldiers as we stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

The gathering was to commemorate fifty years since the Selma to Montgomery marches and the ugly attack by law enforcement on civil rights demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, March 7, 1965. 

It was an inspiring moment, seeing dozens of the movement such as John Lewis, C.T. Vivian and Diane Nash decades after they staged those protests, helping forge a path to one of the most successful pieces of legislation in history, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But a cloud hung over proceedings. Aspects of the Voting Rights Act were being dismantled by some of the very politicians on hand that day, mingling with the civil rights protesters who made it possible.  Designed to protect and assert the right of African-Americans and other minorities to register and vote, the legislation was being chipped away by those who had something to lose electorally by ensuring blacks had easy access to the polling booth.

It was a crucial moment, personally. The Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, September 15, 1963 which killed four African-American girls had dominated my life professionally for several decades. That incident had shaken some of the white community from their stupor about race relations and galvanized the civil rights movement in 1963. Nash, and her then husband, James Bevel, had vowed to register every eligible black voter in Alabama in response to the attack.

People such as Lewis had been beaten to pulp in the voter registration rallies and protests while some, like Jimmie Lee Jackson, had lost their lives in pursuit of the goal of simply unblocking the path to blacks being able to vote. During a peaceful protest in Marion, Alabama, on February 18, 1965, state troopers under the charge of arch segregationist Colonel Al Lingo, moved violently on demonstrators. As he tried to protect his mother and grandfather, 26-year-old Jackson was fatally shot by a trooper. 

The unwitting legacy of the four girls in Birmingham and the reward for those brave foot soldiers was the 1964 Civil Rights Act followed by the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That fact tugged hard at me as we stood on the bridge in 2015. At the least, I felt compelled to forcefully note in my book about the trials of the girls’ murderers, Bending Toward Justice, that we were repeating some of the mistakes of a half century before.

And, now with the benefit of hindsight, I realize an urgency to “do something” about it was an important part of the motivation for me to run for the Senate in 2017.

The attack on voter participation, particularly among blacks and ethnic minorities is as virulent as ever in some parts of the country. Some voter suppression tactics may have changed, but if it quacks like a duck…

In response, Democrats and some other moderates in the House have thrown their support behind the HR1 bill, also known as the “For the People Act.” It is legislation that would address some major concerns with voting, voting suppression, money in politics and redistricting. Essentially, it makes voting easier for everyone, cracks down on people being removed from rolls and reestablishes some of the core anti-discrimination features of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped in a Supreme Court action in 2013.

My Republican colleagues in the Senate might have the numbers to stop the bill in its tracks, but you never know – I believe some will want to support what is fundamentally right. 

In this strange age when much of what is old is new again, including demagoguery, embracing equality and fairness may not seem to be a short-term recipe for electoral success, but it remains a guiding principle of democracy.

Every day is a good day to look back at history to ensure we’re not repeating the sins of the past. Few are better than March 7, fifty-four years after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama.

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