On this day 50 years ago, 600 marchers stared down a line of state troopers armed with billy clubs and tear gas as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
En route to Montgomery, the marchers gathered for the trek to the capitol in protest of segregationist tactics that denied African Americans the right to vote. The line of armed officers created an impermeable barrier and, after charging the crowd, left more than 50 people battered, bruised and in need of hospitalization. Televised and witnessed by the nation, the violence was eternalized as a cornerstone in civil rights history. Bloody Sunday made Selma the voting rights battleground of 1965.
President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law later that year.
Today, voting rights are being targeted with more subversive mechanisms. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in North Carolina. Fifty years after the historic march on Selma, North Carolina is the new epicenter of the fight to preserve democracy.
Weeks after the Supreme Court gutted essential protections of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, North Carolina lawmakers presented the nation’s most restrictive voter suppression legislation. Rushed through the legislature, the bill was riddled with every contemporary trick in the book to block pathways to the ballot box, especially for voters of color.
Among its provisions were cuts to early voting, the elimination of same-day registration, a ban on out-of-precinct provisional ballots, the end of a successful pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year-olds and a strict photo ID requirement. In a blatant attempt by politicians to manipulate the system for partisan gain, the legislature knew these changes would adversely impact voters of color. It’s a practice all too reminiscent of the Jim Crow tactics used in Selma.
When voters of color were blocked from the ballot box by literacy tests, poll taxes and registration restrictions 50 years ago, people united in Selma to fight back. Today people are similarly taking a stand across North Carolina, where a powerful grassroots movement is flourishing. The Forward Together Moral Movement, convened by the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, had already been mobilizing its members across the state since 2007, working together to advance a progressive, multi-issue public policy agenda that encompassed the state’s civil rights, faith-based, labor, student, LGBT and immigrant justice communities.
In 2013, when the legislature passed its monster voter suppression bill – one piece of a drastic agenda that also included slashing public education funding, eliminating emergency unemployment benefits and rejecting federal dollars to expand Medicaid – this broad coalition was prepared to resist.Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians – Black, White, Latino, Asian and Native American; Democrat, Republican and independent; people of faith and nonbelievers; gay and straight; students, parents and retirees – have united in the long tradition of nonviolent direct action to hold lawmakers accountable to governing for the good of the people.
In 2013, more than 900 of them were arrested and jailed for engaging in civil disobedience during weekly “Moral Monday” protests, convening inside the statehouse to give testimony on the violations of their rights.
In 2014, an estimated 80,000 people flocked to Raleigh to march against the state’s attacks on justice and democracy, marking the biggest demonstration in a southern state since the Selma to Montgomery marches. This summer, the movement will march forward once again, this time to the courts, when the North Carolina NAACP’s lawsuit against the state’s discriminatory voting law goes to trial. The result will determine whether countless North Carolinians are granted equal access to the ballot box and an equal voice in their government’s future policymaking.
Just as the marchers from Selma to Montgomery applied pivotal pressure on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the people most impacted by North Carolina’s voter suppression law are fighting to make sure their voices are heard – simultaneously in the legislature, the courts and the streets.
This year, the voting rights battle in North Carolina will mark a new milestone in the modern-day struggle to ensure that America’s elections are free, fair and accessible for all. On this 50-year anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the fight for a more just democracy rages on.
Penda D. Hair is Co-Director of Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization that served as leading litigators in both the North Carolina and Wisconsin lawsuits on behalf of communities of color.