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Reflections From the Bridge: Where the Stain of Slavery and Segregation Met a Young Man's Courage and a Preacher's Dream

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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March 10, 2015

On March 7 and 8, ACLU joined more than 80,000 Americans in Selma, Ala. to commemorate those who marched and risked their lives in Selma 50 years ago. Their bravery led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Being in this crowd commemorating this historic event left ACLU leaders reenergized for continuing the fight ahead. In the opening piece of this series, ACLU Washington Legislative Office Senior Legislative Counsel Deborah J. Vagins writes about the importance of securing voting rights for all citizens after standing in the very same place activists were beaten and bloodied by police 50 years ago. Tomorrow, ACLU Voting Rights Project Director Dale Ho will describe how voter suppression has re-emerged since 2008. And on Thursday the series will conclude with ACLU Racial Justice Program Director Dennis Parker, who will write about being inspired by the next generation of racial justice activists.

I returned home Sunday night from Selma, Alabama, where Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a bipartisan delegation of members of Congress, civil rights leaders, and over 80,000 marchers joined to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

On March 7, 1965, voting rights supporters, led by Lewis and hundreds of activists, attempted to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery to present then-Governor George Wallace with a list of grievances, demanding the fundamental right to vote for all. At this time, without strong federal legislation, state and local officials could merely circumvent court rulings striking down illegal voting tactics, with different, but equally discriminatory practices. Voting rights advocates began to push for a stronger set of tools, but resistance was fierce.

After the marchers set out, state troopers and sheriff’s deputies on horseback stopped the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and in front of television cameras, attacked the more than 600 demonstrators by firing toxic tear gas and beating people with billy clubs and whips. Lewis, only in his 20s at the time, was bloodied and his skull was fractured. The nation watched horrified as the peaceful march turned into violence and chaos.

Returning back to the scene of his attack last weekend, Rep. Lewis reflected on that moment: “This city on the banks of the Alabama river gave birth to the movement that changed this nation forever. Our country will never ever be the same because of what happened on this bridge.”

Unfortunately, last June, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down the most effective parts of the Voting Rights Act: the coverage formula that required some jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to seek federal approval for any voting changes. Without these federal protections, states have now wasted no time enacting discriminatory laws making it harder to vote, especially for voters of color. Last November marked the first election in 50 years where voters of color were not fully protected at the polls.

As President Obama said in his moving speech: “If we want to honor this day, Congress must pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year. That’s how we honor those on this bridge.”

So now herein lies our challenge. Selma cannot just be about commemoration. We cannot just stand on a bridge or recall history. We must channel it into action. To truly honor the Selma marchers, we must repair the very law they fought and died for. I was part of a joyous celebration on that bridge, but we were joyful because of the success born from their suffering. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and we owe them more than a debt of gratitude. We owe it to that young man on the bridge 50 years ago, to the preacher who dreamt of a world he never saw, and to all those who walked with them, to restore a robust Voting Rights Act once again.

We applaud leaders like Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) who have led a bipartisan effort to address this injustice, with the introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 2015. The bill is not perfect, but it is an important first step in the process to ensure the right to vote is effectively protected. In the weeks to come, there may be other pieces of legislation that seek to repair the damage of the Shelby decision, and we urge congressional members in both parties to heed the call from that bridge, to take the right path at this intersection in history, and to make sure all our citizens have equal access to the ballot.

After crossing the bridge, I feel rededicated to my work to honor the courage and fulfill the dreams of those who fought and died for the rights of others. I was privileged to be in Selma for this anniversary and to march, without fear, across the bridge. As we look forward to the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act later this year, let us remember, and honor with action, all those who did not have this luxury.

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