As I joined the crowd waiting outside Brown Chapel for the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March to start on March 21, 1965, I could not stop worrying about what the coming hours would bring. So much was at stake, so much could go wrong.
These days, 55 years later, I have an entirely different set of worries about Selma. I fear that a growing wave of voter suppression laws threatens its legacy.
On that March morning long ago, I was in Selma because of what I had seen on my television set two weeks earlier—exactly 55 years ago today—a date that became known as Bloody Sunday. Like millions of Americans, I had watched Alabama state troopers, aided by a sheriff’s posse, club voting-rights demonstrators as they tried to march down U.S. 80, the highway that leads in and out of Selma.
The television footage was grainy black and white, but there was no mistaking the aloneness of the marchers, who, in keeping with their commitment to nonviolence, did not fight back. John Lewis, who since 1987 has represented Georgia’s 5th District in Congress and was then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was one of those clubbed. To this day I cannot think of Lewis without flashing back to the picture I carry inside me of him lying crumpled on the ground.
The Selma March that I joined included Lewis but was led by Martin Luther King Jr. We enjoyed protections that Lewis never had two weeks earlier. Before the march began, President Lyndon Johnson, not wanting a repeat of Bloody Sunday, federalized 1,800 members of the Alabama National Guard and ordered them to provide protection along the demonstration route.
Johnson had already made clear that Selma was a turning point for him and, he believed, for the country. On March 15, he went before Congress and gave a nationally televised speech in defense of the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Selma and the Voting Rights Act were now forever linked. “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord,” Johnson declared. “So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”
Johnson’s order meant that the Selma march would reach Montgomery unimpeded. On March 25, King spoke in front of the state capitol, and the crowd listening to him numbered 25,000. By most estimates, there were only 3,200 of us at the start of the march I was on.
Selma was not an easy place to reach, and after Bloody Sunday, it was a town on edge. The death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young Alabaman fatally shot in a clash with state troopers following a February voting rights protest, was still on everyone’s mind. At Selma, the deaths that followed Jackson’s were those of protesters who had come from out of state. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, was killed after eating dinner at a Selma restaurant days before the march. Viola Liuzzo, a former Detroit autoworker, was murdered at the end of the march as she drove demonstrators back to their homes.
As the Selma March began, the white Alabamans who had gathered to watch it seemed to be hoping for more violence. I recall hearing “Dixie” being played over a car radio loudspeaker turned up full blast and seeing a “Coonsville USA” sign along the march route. Two years earlier, President Kennedy had been assassinated. It was natural to fear that those at the head of the march, especially King, were potential assassination targets.
“Selma is not some outlier in the American experience,” President Obama declared in the moving speech he delivered in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. “If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done,” he warned.
Today, Obama’s warning seems even more relevant than when he first uttered it. The Supreme Court had already taken a major step during his administration to undo the impact of Selma. In 2013, in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the Court in a 5-to-4 ruling struck down the provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to obtain preclearance from the Justice Department or the U. S. District Court in Washington before they make any change in their voting laws.
That 2013 ruling has been pivotal for a series of voter-suppression actions that have taken place in the South, and it has encouraged voter suppression already underway in the North. As the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School notes, “After the 2010 election, state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote.” Overall 25 states have put in new restrictions on voting that have made getting to the polls harder, especially for the poor and minorities.
The laws vary from strict voter ID photo requirements, which are a special burden on anyone who does not have a driver’s license, to voting prohibitions for people with criminal convictions. How far the next round of voter-suppression efforts will go is the only question. In 2018, the Supreme Court in a 5-to-4 decision in Husted v. A Philip Randolph Institute approved an Ohio failure-to-vote law that is triggered by anyone who does not engage in voter activity for two years and does not respond to a notice from the state. That person is erased from the Ohio voter rolls if he or she does not vote in the next four years.
For today’s Republican Party, which has all but given up on winning over African-American and Hispanic voters, the new voter-suppression measures reflect their version of the lessons of Selma. The Republican leadership, knowing the policies it has committed itself to, sees permanent defeat ahead if the country’s increasingly diverse population is enfranchised at anywhere near its strength.
If there is an analogy for the present moment, it is the time in the late 19th century when Reconstruction ended and the South began passing Jim Crow laws. Today’s voter suppression laws are the modern equivalent of poll taxes and literacy tests. The difference is that today’s voter-suppression efforts are national in scope and practiced as selectively in the North as in the South.
We have in essence created a broad, new category of politically less entitled citizens. We expect those who do not own cars to possess the kinds of photo IDs those with driver licenses naturally have. We tell those who have paid their debt to society by a stint in prison to go on paying that debt even after they are freed. We penalize those who skip election cycles by setting up registration hurdles for them when they finally find an election they want to participate in.
What we need is a modern Voting Rights Act that will do away with such voter-suppression practices once and for all. In this regard the example of Selma, which paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, remains our best guide to the present. The obstacles to voting that have been created over the last decade on a state-by-state basis can be swept away with clarifying national legislation much as the obstacles to voting that the South created over decades spanning two centuries were swept away by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section IV of Article I of the Constitution leaves setting the times, places, and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives to each state, but Section IV does not stop there. It invites change by declaring, “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of choosing Senators.”