How to honor the martyrs of Bloody Sunday

Mrs. S.W. Boynton is aided by two men after she was injured when state police broke up a demonstration march in Selma, Ala. on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.
Mrs. S.W. Boynton is aided by two men after she was injured when state police broke up a demonstration march in Selma, Ala. on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

This week the nation recognizes the 49th anniversary of the Alabama government's last-ditch effort to hold back justice at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

On March 7, 1965, what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” hundreds of peaceful marchers, black and white, demanded that Alabama and the rest of the country enforce the 15th Amendment – the right to vote for black people. Many marchers were beaten by police. 

A few months later, repulsed by the images of those beatings at the foot of the bridge, the nation passed the crown jewel of the civil rights movement – the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

Today we are experiencing a similar last-ditch effort, turned loose last summer after the Supreme Court gutted this same Voting Rights Act. For decades, the law protected Americans against unfair voting practices by requiring states with a history of discriminatory voting laws to submit all voting changes for federal review before they could be implemented. But the Supreme Court ended that requirement.

Within days of the Supreme Court’s decision, the North Carolina government took steps to pass the worst voter suppression law since 1964. The law targets nearly every aspect of the voting process, with a discriminatory impact on African Americans and Latinos. It implements a strict voter ID requirement, cuts early voting by a full week, eliminates same-day registration, increases the ease with which voters can be challenged, decreases access to young voters, prohibits paid voter registration drives, and prevents counties from extending poll hours to accommodate long lines.

The North Carolina NAACP State Conference and other plaintiffs are challenging the law in federal court, represented by Advancement Project. The North Carolina League of Women Voters and the U.S. Justice Department are also challenging this voter suppression law in federal court.

A democracy is only as strong as its elections are free, fair, and accessible. The wave of democracy that swept across the south after the passage of the Voting Rights Act has run into a backlash by the same forces that tried to stop history at the foot of Pettus Bridge 49 years ago.

Other formerly-covered states and jurisdictions, now freed from the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, have intensified their attacks on voting rights. Laws passed by right-wing legislatures – cutting early voting, purging voting rolls, eliminating provisional ballots, and restricting the IDs voters may show – amount to the most blatant attempts to suppress the vote since the days of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Voters of color may no longer have to face guns and water hoses while attempting to vote, but this current maze of changes to restrict voting rights are nonetheless the 21st century version of Jim Crow.  

Texas began enforcing the same photo ID law that was found to be racially discriminatory by the preclearance review; Virginia rammed through a similar ID law and another policy that authorizes a flawed database to purge voters from the rolls.  Another former Jim Crow state, Florida, took its discredited voter purge program off the shelf, where it had been placed after a settlement in a 2012 discrimination claim.  The Bloody Sunday anniversary reminds the nation of the need to enact laws that ensure full, fair, access to the ballot, including the effective protections of the Voting Rights Act. To honor the heroes of Bloody Sunday, let’s finish the job of clearing barriers to the ballot box for voters across the country. 

The Voting Rights Act Amendment of 2014 (VRAA), which offers a new formula for determining which states require federal pre-approval of voting changes, is a modest step in this direction. It must be strengthened, however, to protect voters of color in every southern state, where violence, trickery, and intimidation were the order of the day for over a century after our great-grandparents were liberated and our great grandfathers won the right to vote.

The current VRAA would require only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas to obtain preclearance before implementing voting changes. But other southern states that practiced vicious disenfranchisement tactics through the early 1970's must also be watched.

Forty-nine years after the vicious attack on peaceful marchers in Selma, we should not have to fight these battles again. In North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement against these mean-spirited, extreme policies, we are determined to bring a fresh challenge to the forces who would divide the human family.

We have evidence from our Moral Monday demonstrations that white, black, Asian, Hispanic and Native American human beings can work together, go to jail together, organize together, and begin to repair the breach of God's human family. Tens of thousands of us experienced it last month, when we led the largest march in southern civil rights history in Raleigh. People of all colors, religions and ethical cultures sang the beautiful second verse of We Shall Overcome together: “We are not afraid.”

As we commemorate the march at Pettus Bridge this week, let us also do the hard grassroots organizing to expose the racial animus behind the extremist voter suppression movement. We know our right to vote is sacred, and we shall not turn back the clock on that right. Forward together. Not one step back. 

Editor's note: Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II is President of the North Carolina NAACP and Convener of the Forward Together Moral Movement. Penda D. Hair is Co-Director of Advancement Project.