Crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge Again
Will Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act Survive?
A few weeks ago I made my annual Pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama for the Bridge Crossing Jubilee which commemorates "Bloody Sunday," the occasion when civil rights activists and concerned citizens first attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965 to demand the restoration of the right to vote. Some 600 marchers were brutally beaten, trampled and turned back by a phalanx of State Police as they sought to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Scenes of peaceful marchers viciously beaten by agents of government sworn to protect them shot across the nation and the world, seen by millions of people - provoking sympathy, empathy and outrage. A few weeks later, Martin Luther King, John Lewis and a host of leaders and activists from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and numerous other organizations would successfully lead thousands of marchers across the Bridge on a grueling but triumphant journey to the steps of the Capital in Montgomery!
Bloody Sunday and the subsequent successful March from Selma to Montgomery was a turning point in the quest of a disenfranchised, terrorized and marginalized people to regain the right to vote and march on ballot boxes to promote and protect their interests as human beings and citizens of this nation. Within months, President Lyndon Baines Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided a range of affirmative federal protections for African Americans and anyone seeking to exercise the franchise in districts which had a history of utilizing various means to deprive people of the right to vote.
The victory came at a terrible cost. In 1963, in Mississippi, Medgar Evers had been gunned down in his driveway in city of Jackson. During the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney, two Jews and an African American, were killed and buried in a shallow grave in Neshoba County. In the months leading up to the Selma to Montgomery March, Rev. C.T. Vivian, an aide to Dr. King, was beaten on the steps of the Registrar's office by the notorious Sheriff Jim Clarke. Jimmy Lee Jackson paid the price when he was fatally wounded, struggling to protect family members from a White mob in Marion County, Alabama. His death was one of the "intolerable acts" that convinced the sons and daughters of Africa from the Black Belt that they had to March to Montgomery to demand the right to vote. James Reeb, a White Unitarian Minister from Boston, was scornfully labeled a "nigger lover" and bludgeoned to death by a group of White men in Selma. On Bloody Sunday, John Lewis suffered what could have been a life ending concussion as Marchers heard the crack of a State Trooper's Billy club bounce off his head. Mrs. Amelia Boynton, now 102 years old, was trampled by horses and left for dead on the bridge. And, tragically, Viola Liuzzo, a White autoworker from Detroit, was murdered by White terrorists as she shuttled marchers back to Selma after the mass rally on the steps of the Capital that concluded the second and triumphant March to Montgomery. These are but a few of the heroes and heroines we know -- but legions of unnamed Black people (and in some instances their White supporters) suffered humiliation, lynching and terror quietly and overtly thirsting and fighting for first class citizenship in a region and nation, fattened off the labor of their enslaved ancestors.
This year's Commemoration in Selma took on an unusual urgency because oral arguments to a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act were heard by the U.S. Supreme Court a week earlier. Often described as the "guts" of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5 requires that changes in procedures affecting voting in the covered jurisdictions must be "pre-cleared" by the Justice Department before they can take effect. Little wonder then that the battle cries voiced by civil rights, faith, labor and political leaders this year were "Section 5 Must Stay Alive" and "We Are Not Going Back." Indeed, in recognition of the historic and contemporary significance of the Voting Rights Act and threat to Section 5, President Obama dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder and Vice-President Joe Biden to Selma to visibly show the support of the administration. In the most moving moment of the Rally prior to crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the Vice-President apologized for not being in Selma in 1965. He said, "I should have been here." Congressman John Lewis stridently reiterated the theme "We Are Not Going Back." And, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton followed suit by calling on people to fill jails all across the country if the Supreme Court repeals Section 5 and deals a death blow to the Voting Rights Act.
The deep seeded concern and righteous indignation over the prospects of the repeal of Section 5 are very much in order. Despite the fact that we have an African American President, racism and the forces of white supremacy are alive and well in America. The fact that we have a Black President, thousands of Black elected officials and unprecedented numbers of "successful" Black people is seen by reactionary Whites as a sign that the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action and other civil rights measures are obsolete. But, this convenient, self-serving assessment flies in the face of the reality of ongoing patterns and practices of discrimination, including intentional efforts to dilute or negate Black voting power by gerrymandering, voter identification laws and other restrictive voter registration and voting procedures. Moreover, much of White America, even well-meaning Whites, has long since tired of hearing about the plight of Blacks and our "racial grievances." And, fueled by the spurious arguments of rightwing reactionaries, a sizeable minority of Whites has been persuaded to believe that if Blacks are having difficulties succeeding in society today, it is because of flaws in Black culture and/or the unwillingness of Black people to accept personal responsibility.
The assault against the Voting Rights Act is but the tip of the iceberg. Racially biased policing strategies like "stop and frisk" that target young Black men, the targeting of Blacks to purchase risky sub-prime mortgages, the violence, fratricide and mass incarceration in America's "dark ghettos" bespeak the fact that discrimination and structural/institutional racism remain major barriers to large numbers of Blacks achieving genuine justice and equality in America. The attack on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act must be viewed as symptomatic of a broader attempt to turn back the clock on the progress of the civil rights era or what might be called a kind of social justice fatigue suffered by well meaning Whites who wistfully believe racism is a thing of the past. Therefore, the anxiety, fear and frustration expressed in Selma this year was/is justified. Given these realities, the question is whether the "battle cries" that reverberated throughout the multitude assembled at the foot of the Edmund Pettis Bridge will take on real meaning or simply be idle threats, rhetorical bombast, "wolf tickets" that will have no effect in terms of repulsing the racist tide threatening Black progress? The question is whether thousands of Blacks and people of conscience will in fact fill the jails in this country if Section 5 is repealed? Or will we suffer this indignity, this unacceptable reversal of fortune .... Peacefully!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at email@example.com.