President Joe Biden spoke this afternoon in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when law enforcement officers tried to beat into silence Black Americans marching for their right to have a say in the government under which they lived. Standing at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which had been named for a Confederate brigadier general, Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, and U.S. senator who stood against Black rights, Biden said: “On this bridge, blood was given to help ‘redeem the soul of America.’”
The story of March 7, 1965, commemorated today in Selma, is the story of Americans determined to bring to life the principle articulated in the Declaration of Independence that a government’s claim to authority comes from the consent of the governed. It is also a story of how hard local authorities, entrenched in power and backed by angry white voters, worked to make the hurdles of that process insurmountable.
In the 1960s, despite the fact Black Americans outnumbered white Americans among the 29,500 people who lived in Selma, Alabama, the city’s voting rolls were 99% white. So, in 1963, local Black organizers launched a voter registration drive.
It was hard going. White Selma residents had no intention of permitting their Black neighbors to have a say in their government. Indeed, white southerners in general were taking a stand against the equal right of Black Americans to vote. During the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration drive in neighboring Mississippi, Ku Klux Klan members worked with local law enforcement officers to murder three voting rights organizers and dispose of their bodies.
To try to hold back the white supremacists, Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, designed in part to make it possible for Black Americans to register to vote. In Selma, a judge stopped voter registration meetings by prohibiting public gatherings of more than two people.
To call attention to the crisis in her city, voting rights activist Amelia Boynton traveled to Birmingham to invite the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the city. King had become a household name after the 1963 March on Washington where he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, and his presence would bring national attention to Selma’s struggle.
King and other prominent Black leaders arrived in January 1965, and for seven weeks, Black residents made a new push to register to vote. County Sheriff James Clark arrested almost 2,000 of them on a variety of charges, including contempt of court and parading without a permit. A federal court ordered Clark not to interfere with orderly registration, so he forced Black applicants to stand in line for hours before taking a “literacy” test. Not a single person passed.
Then, on February 18, white police officers, including local police, sheriff’s deputies, and Alabama state troopers, beat and shot an unarmed man, 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was marching for voting rights at a demonstration in his hometown of Marion, Alabama, about 25 miles northwest of Selma. Jackson had run into a restaurant for shelter along with his mother when the police started rioting, but they chased him and shot him in the restaurant’s kitchen.
Jackson died eight days later, on February 26. Black leaders in Selma decided to defuse the community’s anger by planning a long march—54 miles—from Selma to the state capitol at Montgomery to draw attention to the murder and voter suppression.
On March 7, 1965, the marchers set out. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers and other law enforcement officers met the unarmed marchers with billy clubs, bullwhips, and tear gas. They fractured the skull of young activist John Lewis and beat Amelia Boynton unconscious. A newspaper photograph of the 54-year-old Boynton, seemingly dead in the arms of another marcher, illustrated the depravity of those determined to stop Black voting.
Images of “Bloody Sunday” on the national news mesmerized the nation, and supporters began to converge on Selma. King, who had been in Atlanta when the marchers first set off, returned to the fray.
Two days later, the marchers set out again. Once again, the troopers and police met them at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but this time, King led the marchers in prayer and then took them back to Selma. That night, a white mob beat to death a Unitarian Universalist minister, James Reeb, who had come from Massachusetts to join the marchers.
On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a nationally televised joint session of Congress to ask for the passage of a national voting rights act. “Their cause must be our cause too,” he said. “[A]ll of us…must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” Two days later, he submitted to Congress proposed voting rights legislation.
The marchers were determined to complete their trip to Montgomery, and when Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, refused to protect them, President Johnson stepped in. When the marchers set off for a third time on March 21, 1,900 members of the nationalized Alabama National Guard, FBI agents, and federal marshals protected them. Covering about ten miles a day, they camped in the yards of well-wishers until they arrived at the Alabama state capitol on March 25. Their ranks had grown as they walked until they numbered about 25,000 people.
On the steps of the capitol, speaking under a Confederate flag, Dr. King said: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”
That night, Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother of five who had arrived from Michigan to help after Bloody Sunday, was murdered by four Ku Klux Klan members who tailed her as she ferried demonstrators out of the city.
On August 6, Dr. King and Mrs. Boynton were guests of honor as President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson recalled “the outrage of Selma” when he said, "This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over their own destinies."
The Voting Rights Act authorized federal supervision of voter registration in districts where African Americans were historically underrepresented. Johnson promised that the government would strike down “regulations, or laws, or tests to deny the right to vote.” He called the right to vote “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men,” and pledged that “we will not delay, or we will not hesitate, or we will not turn aside until Americans of every race and color and origin in this country have the same right as all others to share in the process of democracy.”
But less than 50 years later, in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. The Shelby County v. Holder decision opened the door, once again, for voter suppression. Since then, states have made it harder to vote. In the wake of the 2020 election, in which voters handed control of the government to Democrats, Republican-dominated legislatures in at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting. In July 2021, in the Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee decision, the Supreme Court ruled that election laws that disproportionately affected minority voters were not unconstitutional so long as they were not intended to be racially discriminatory.
When the Democrats took power in 2021, they vowed to strengthen voting rights. They immediately introduced the For the People Act, which expanded voting rights, limited the influence of money in politics, banned partisan gerrymandering, and created new ethics rules for federal officeholders. Republicans in the Senate blocked the measure with a filibuster. Democrats then introduced the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would have restored portions of the Voting Rights Act, and the Freedom to Vote Act, a lighter version of the For the People Act. Republicans blocked both of those acts, too.
And so, in 2023, the right to vote is increasingly precarious.
As Biden told marchers today, “The right to vote—the right to vote and to have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty. With it, anything is possible. Without it—without that right, nothing is possible. And this fundamental right remains under assault.”
Thank you, Professor for lighting a candle today and every day. We will never be free until every one is free.
Langston Hughes, we hear your voice:
LET AMERICA BE AMERICA AGAIN
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used with permission.
Reading this, wearing my GOOD TROUBLE sweatshirt, I find myself vacillating between sadness and fury. Those of us who still have the right to vote must work to register more voters and encourage voting, especially among young people, so that we can start to undo the backsliding into oppression, repression, and white supremacy. It is up to each of us to find ways to contribute to the reclaiming of our democracy.