From Selma to Shelby County to Ferguson

This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.

Fifty years ago in Alabama hundreds of peaceful marchers calling for voting rights were violently attacked by state police. Fifty years later Americans from all walks of life are expected to gather this weekend to mark the anniversary of what became known as Bloody Sunday and embrace the spirit for courage, sacrifice and justice of those women and men who marched, were beaten and no doubt underestimated the impact that their bruises would have on future generations.

The events of that day and the tense days and weeks that followed shocked our national consciousness and became a catalyst for passage of what some call the "crown jewel" of the civil rights movement, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It's a law that held bipartisan support and helped protect countless Americans from discrimination at the ballot box for almost five decades.

Every year since that bloody day we have honored those 600-plus marchers who put their lives on the line in pursuit of basic democratic rights and racial justice. But this year, with a passion as never before, we must do more than just give lip service. This time marchers of today must clearly connect with the purpose in the pain that started in prayer on a Sunday morning and ended on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with blood and tears in the afternoon. Why? Because as John Legend so eloquently put it last week, "Selma is now."

The shadow of Bloody Sunday is there, nearly two years after a core provision of the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court in the Shelby County case, as we practice patience for Congress to restore and strengthen what was taken away. When our leaders say that they honor those who refused to turn around, will they also commit to restoring the kinds of voting protections that they were marching for?

Today, 40 bills to restrict voting rights have been introduced in states across the country, from voter ID legislation to proposals reducing access to absentee ballots to bills that would make it more difficult for those with past criminal convictions to vote. When our leaders say they honor those who were beaten and bruised with billy clubs 50 years ago, will they also commit to voting against proposed laws that would make it harder for all people to have an equal voice in our democracy? Will they commit to confirming the highly qualified Loretta Lynch, a woman with a strong commitment to civil rights, to lead -- as the first female African American -- the Justice Department in effectively monitoring and enforcing the voting rights laws we already have and those yet to come?

Today, African Americans and Latinos, especially males, endure being routinely profiled, targeted, and attacked by the police. The report released this week from the Department of Justice about policing in Ferguson, Missouri, revealed that 93 percent of arrests were of African Americans, though they make up only 67 percent of the city's population. It showed and confirmed that African Americans in Ferguson were disproportionately likely to have force used against them by the police. When our leaders say they honor those who were hospitalized for peaceful protest 50 years ago, will they also commit to fighting against discrimination and violence at the hands of those meant to serve and protect our communities?

Selma is now, and the march continues. Selma needed protection for voting rights then, and Selma needs protection for voting rights now. Many civil rights leaders, past and present, and even future leaders, will be in Selma this weekend. But thousands of others who can't be there in person will not be excluded from being a part of a new march. Men and women will with great intent make sure every registered voter gets to the polls to vote in every election, will minister with an activist heart to their neighborhoods when violence upends daily life, will use social media as a tool to motivate participation in work aimed at ending all forms of discrimination in the name of religion, and will organize their communities in active opposition when yet another bill is introduced to undermine, restrict, or deny basic civil and human rights.

On the evening of that Sunday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. informed the media that ministers would march and called for clergy from around the country to join them. He said, "The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of America, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. ... In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land."

I was not there then, but today as with every day, especially because of the Shelby Counties and the Fergusons, I give thanks and will not forget that struggle. On March 7, 1965, the world watched as nonviolent mothers, fathers, students, workers, faith leaders were beaten, tear gassed and hospitalized. On March 7, 2015, let the world watch as this next generation genuinely honors those who had the courage to take a stand that Bloody Sunday "for the survival of democracy." How? By registering, advocating, teaching, speaking up, marching and continuing their work in pursuit of voting rights, freedom, and justice as if our unseen bruises, our lives, our souls depend on it.

PFAW Foundation

Representative John Lewis: "There's other bridges to walk across"

Just 11 days ago, on June 14, 2013, Representative John Lewis was honored as a 2013 Progressive Champion by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.


Starting at 4:13

Representative Lewis offered an impassioned call to action:

We've come too far. We've made too much progress to stop now or to go back. But we must move forward.

After recalling the ultimate sacrifice made by his contemporaries from the Civil Rights Movement, Representative Lewis continued:

We must be prepared to fight the good fight. And never, ever give up.

He was specifically urging his audience to press on regardless of the Supreme Court's imminent ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which we now know gutted the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 remains on the books and remains constitutionally valid, but without Section 4, no part of the country is actually covered by Section 5.

As Representative Lewis marks the 50th anniversary of his chairmanship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), we cannot forget that this is a man who put his life on the line to get the VRA passed in the first place.

On March 7, 1965, what became known as Bloody Sunday, voting rights marchers were beaten in their attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Fifty-eight marchers were treated at a local hospital for their injuries, including then twenty-five-year-old Lewis. It was a tragedy that touched many, including members of what would later become the PFAW Foundation family.

Representative Lewis concluded his ACS remarks with a message to those of us who weren't there that day in Selma:

You didn't walk across the bridge, but there's other bridges to walk across.

The Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby is a setback, or as Representative Lewis put it to ABC's Jeff Zeleny earlier today:

What the Supreme Court did was to put a dagger in the very heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But it's also part of the voting rights bridge that we must continue fighting to get across.

PFAW Foundation

UPDATE: State legislation shines national spotlight on voter ID

UPDATE: Back in March, we turned our attention to the 47th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In the months since, we’ve crisscrossed the nation and detailed how the fights of 50 years ago are being resurrected today. The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen yesterday offered his own telling, invoking Dr. King’s famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” to break down the dangerous myths and machinations of voter suppression, concluding that “[t]hese new laws seek to bend the arc backward again, to take away from people their effective right to vote.” It’s important that we remain vigilant over the next nine weeks, so that on November 6 eligible Americans are able to cast a vote and have it count. In the words of LBJ, “Then with his vote and his voice he is equipped with a very potent weapon to guarantee his own dignity.” Click here and here for more from Andrew Cohen.

March 7, 2012 marked the 47th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” when voting rights marchers were beaten in their attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

NAACP President Ben Jealous joined activists from then and now in marking the occasion with another march, saying protest is just as necessary now as it was then.

"We need people to understand that not only is history not very distant, but we stand on the precipice of repeating it," Jealous said.

The NAACP leader said strict voter ID laws that won't allow people to vote without a driver's license or passport are unnecessary and will make it difficult -- and in some cases impossible -- for 5 million people to vote.

"We need to make sure that the principle of one person, one vote, is respected," he said.

Last fall’s The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation, details how the fights of 50 years ago are being resurrected today. Indeed we’ve seen the strict laws that Jealous mentions pushed in states including Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Texas, among others, along with the rise of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Following what happened in Virginia, Washington Post editorialized against strict ID.

Even if Republican lawmakers aren’t personally acquainted with people who don’t carry ID, they exist. And provided they are legally registered to vote, they should be allowed to cast their ballots — without encumbrances manufactured by the state.

Ari Berman wrote in Rolling Stone about what he believes are the political motivations and consequences.

March 2012:

Since the 2010 election, Republicans have waged an unprecedented war on voting, with the unspoken but unmistakable goal of preventing millions of mostly Democratic voters, including students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly, from casting ballots in 2012. More than a dozen states, from Texas to Wisconsin and Florida, have passed laws designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process, whether by requiring birth certificates to register to vote, restricting voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, requiring government-issued IDs to cast a ballot, or disenfranchising ex-felons.

Within days, the crucial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Virginia will become the latest GOP states to pass legislation erecting new barriers to voting. If, as expected, the new laws lead to fewer Democrats casting ballots in November, both states could favor Republicans, possibly shifting the balance of power in Congress and denying Barack Obama a second term.

August 2011:

Republicans have long tried to drive Democratic voters away from the polls. "I don't want everybody to vote," the influential conservative activist Paul Weyrich told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1980. "As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." But since the 2010 election, thanks to a conservative advocacy group founded by Weyrich, the GOP's effort to disrupt voting rights has been more widespread and effective than ever. In a systematic campaign orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council – and funded in part by David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who bankrolled the Tea Party – 38 states introduced legislation this year designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.

Then there’s Roll Call.

Rock the Vote is one of several dozen organizations, from civil rights groups to Latino, labor and women’s groups, that have launched a multipart campaign to push back against new registration rules for voters that have been enacted in many states. The fight over voter access has triggered state-level lobbying, ballot initiatives and lawsuits, and the issue will likely land before the Supreme Court.

Voting rights activists are responding to a wave of state laws enacted after the 2010 elections, which ushered in GOP majorities in more than two dozen state legislatures. Voting rights advocates have struggled to gain traction amid public indifference and more visible collective bargaining fights, but they are starting to win attention at the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill.

However voter ID is resolved, it’s clear that it’s an issue of national concern, not one isolated to a few states.

Or even international. Jealous and the NAACP have put the issue before the United Nations Human Rights Council. Click here to read their report, Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America.

PFAW Foundation

State legislation shines national spotlight on voter ID

March 7, 2012 marked the 47th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” when voting rights marchers were beaten in their attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

NAACP President Ben Jealous joined activists from then and now in marking the occasion with another march, saying protest is just as necessary now as it was then.

"We need people to understand that not only is history not very distant, but we stand on the precipice of repeating it," Jealous said.

The NAACP leader said strict voter ID laws that won't allow people to vote without a driver's license or passport are unnecessary and will make it difficult -- and in some cases impossible -- for 5 million people to vote.

"We need to make sure that the principle of one person, one vote, is respected," he said.

Last fall’s The Right to Vote under Attack: The Campaign to Keep Millions of Americans from the Ballot Box, a Right Wing Watch: In Focus report by PFAW Foundation, details how the fights of 50 years ago are being resurrected today. Indeed we’ve seen the strict laws that Jealous mentions pushed in states including Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Texas, among others, along with the rise of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Following what happened in Virginia, Washington Post editorialized against strict ID.

Even if Republican lawmakers aren’t personally acquainted with people who don’t carry ID, they exist. And provided they are legally registered to vote, they should be allowed to cast their ballots — without encumbrances manufactured by the state.

Ari Berman wrote in Rolling Stone about what he believes are the political motivations and consequences.

March 2012:

Since the 2010 election, Republicans have waged an unprecedented war on voting, with the unspoken but unmistakable goal of preventing millions of mostly Democratic voters, including students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly, from casting ballots in 2012. More than a dozen states, from Texas to Wisconsin and Florida, have passed laws designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process, whether by requiring birth certificates to register to vote, restricting voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, requiring government-issued IDs to cast a ballot, or disenfranchising ex-felons.

Within days, the crucial battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Virginia will become the latest GOP states to pass legislation erecting new barriers to voting. If, as expected, the new laws lead to fewer Democrats casting ballots in November, both states could favor Republicans, possibly shifting the balance of power in Congress and denying Barack Obama a second term.

August 2011:

Republicans have long tried to drive Democratic voters away from the polls. "I don't want everybody to vote," the influential conservative activist Paul Weyrich told a gathering of evangelical leaders in 1980. "As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down." But since the 2010 election, thanks to a conservative advocacy group founded by Weyrich, the GOP's effort to disrupt voting rights has been more widespread and effective than ever. In a systematic campaign orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council – and funded in part by David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who bankrolled the Tea Party – 38 states introduced legislation this year designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.

Then there’s Roll Call.

Rock the Vote is one of several dozen organizations, from civil rights groups to Latino, labor and women’s groups, that have launched a multipart campaign to push back against new registration rules for voters that have been enacted in many states. The fight over voter access has triggered state-level lobbying, ballot initiatives and lawsuits, and the issue will likely land before the Supreme Court.

Voting rights activists are responding to a wave of state laws enacted after the 2010 elections, which ushered in GOP majorities in more than two dozen state legislatures. Voting rights advocates have struggled to gain traction amid public indifference and more visible collective bargaining fights, but they are starting to win attention at the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill.

However voter ID is resolved, it’s clear that it’s an issue of national concern, not one isolated to a few states.

Or even international. Jealous and the NAACP have put the issue before the United Nations Human Rights Council. Click here to read their report, Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America.

PFAW Foundation