DemDaily: Bloody Sunday

March 10, 2023

Tuesday marked the 58th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when a 25-year-old John Lewis and some 600 peaceful civil rights marchers were brutally attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

The march for voting rights was in response to the February 26, 1965 death of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was beaten and shot by a state trooper while trying to protect his mother during a peaceful protest in Marion, Alabama.

The March 7th demonstration was to have proceeded from the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma to the State Capitol and to Governor George Wallace in Montgomery, 54 miles away.

The unarmed protestors, however, were stopped just one mile into their march, after crossing the county line on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge -- named for a Confederate general and reputed grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.

The troopers, along with a posse of deputized local white men, had been ordered by Wallace "to use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march."

The incident would become a turning point in the civil rights movement as indelible images of black men, women and children being beaten by troopers were broadcast nationwide. That night ABC interrupted its showing of "Judgment at Nuremberg" with televised images of the vicious attack.

A horrified nation, forced to confront its own prejudice, watched as footage of the bloodied victims, struck with billy clubs, whips, tear gas and baseball bats, played out in black and white across their screens.

Before it was over, 17 marchers would be hospitalized and at least 50 others injured, including Lewis, who suffered severe head injuries.

President Lyndon Johnson, promising to send a voting rights bill to Congress that week, said, "Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote...What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too."

The events in Selma galvanized public opinion and mobilized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which Johnson signed into law on August 6, 1965.

Voting Rights Today
Nearly 60 years later, America is still struggling with its own prejudices and fighting voter suppression against communities of color.

Since the Voting Rights Act became law, Congress has passed major amendments extending its protections.

In 2013, however, the US Supreme Court, in Shelby v. Holder, struck down the VRA's pre-clearance provision which required federal oversight of election laws in nine Southern states whose laws had previously been deemed politically discriminatory against minorities.

The High Court's ruling opened the floodgates, ushering in a wave of efforts by states to reverse earlier VRA protections and, in some cases, enacted more aggressive voter suppression laws.

Dozens of Republican-controlled state legislatures have since enacted restrictive laws aimed at minority voters. In 2022 alone, lawmakers in 39 states introduced over 480 restrictive voting bills, 11 of which passed.

“Selma is a reckoning. The right to vote and to have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty. With it, anything’s possible. Without that right, nothing is possible. And this fundamental right remains under assault.” -- President Joseph Biden, March 5, 3023

A Bridge to The Future
On March 7, 2021, the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Biden signed an executive order "to "protect the right to vote and ensure all eligible citizens can freely participate in the electoral process."

The order directed an all-of-government effort to promote access to voting, directing federal agencies to develop a strategic plan for promoting voter registration and participation, assisting states under the National Voter Registration Act, and modernizing the federal government's Vote.gov portal.

The executive order also expanded voter access for federal employees, service members, inmates, and people with disabilities.

In December 2022, President Biden signed into law the Electoral Count Reform Act, which establishes clear guidelines for certifying and counting electoral votes for President and Vice President, "to preserve the will of the people and to protect against the type of attempts to overturn our elections that led to the January 6 insurrection."

Last Sunday, at the commemoration in Selma, Biden renewed his call for Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore and strengthen parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- most notably its pre-clearance federal oversight of new voting laws in historically discriminatory states.

Biden also called for passage of the Freedom to Vote Act, previously known as The For The People Act, which would make Election Day a holiday, enable automatic voter registration for eligible citizens, create a minimum 15-day early voting period for federal elections, and prohibit partisan gerrymandering, among other voter protection provisions.

Both bills have passed the US House but failed to secure the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.

Of Lewis and other civil rights leaders who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday 58 years ago, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who represents Selma, said, "They were there on that day so that all Americans have the equal right to vote. So we come in honor and reflection of what happened in our past...but this is not just a commemoration, it is a continuation of a struggle that we know is still very real."

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Kimberly Scott
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Sources: White House, History.com, CNN, Washington Post, Brennan Center for Justice, Southern Poverty Law Center, US Congress

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