DemDaily: Bloody Sunday

March 5, 2024

This week marks the 59th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when a 25-year-old John Lewis and some 600 peaceful civil rights marchers were brutally attacked in Selma, Alabama.

It was a turning point in the civil rights movement and an indelible reminder of our past, our progress, and -- most vividly -- the magnitude of the challenges we still face in our struggle for a truly democratic society.

The march for voting rights was in response to the February 26, 1965 death of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, who had been 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 Selma to the State Capitol and Governor George Wallace (D) 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 former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon.

Wallace had ordered the troopers, accompanied by a posse of deputized local white men, "to use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march."

Images of black men, women and children being viciously attacked by troopers were broadcast nationwide. 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.

"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." - President Lyndon Johnson

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, communities of color are still the victims of extremist laws and voter suppression, despite the congressional passage of major amendments over time extending the VRA's protections.

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

The high court's ruling opened the floodgates, ushering in a wave of efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to reverse earlier VRA protections and enact more aggressive voter suppression laws.

In 2023 alone, conservative state lawmakers introduced more than 300 voting restriction bills nationwide. At least 14 states enacted 17 of those laws, all of which will be in effect for the 2024 general election. At the same time, at least 23 states enacted 53 expansive voting laws.

“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

A Bridge to The Future
On March 7, 2021, the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing a government-wide effort to promote voting access, registration and participation at the federal and state level.

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

In December 2022, 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."

At Sunday's commemoration in Selma, Vice President Kamala Harris renewed the administration's call for Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was reintroduced in the US Senate yesterday and would restore and strengthen parts of the VRA.

Harris also called for passage of the Freedom to Vote Act, which would enable automatic voter registration for eligible citizens, create a minimum 15-day early voting period for federal elections, end partisan gerrymandering, and reform campaign finance, among other voter protection provisions.

The Biden administration has also announced renewed strategies that federal agencies will use to encourage millions of Americans to vote and Harris recently met with representatives from more than 20 major voting rights groups to review plans for boosting turnout among key voting blocs this November.

“Today, we know our fight for freedom is not over because, in this moment we are witnessing a full-on attack on hard-fought, hard-won freedoms, starting with the freedom that unlocks all others: the freedom to vote. The sacred freedom to vote." - Vice President Kamala Harris

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Kimberly Scott
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Sources: White House, History.com, CNN, Washington Post, Brennan Center, Axios, Montgomery Advertiser, US Congress, MSN

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