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We Must Honor the Legacy of Selma Foot Soldiers by Repairing What They Fought For

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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February 27, 2015

In an important moment of bipartisanship, Congress unanimously passed a bill this month that honors the thousands of people who marched for voting rights 50 years ago in Selma, Alabama, with the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’ highest civilian honor. This legislation was co-sponsored by 149 Republicans and 227 Democrats.

On March 7, 1965 at the foot of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, they suffered beatings and the fear of death to peacefully protest for a national voting rights law. Ultimately, they prevailed and that law – the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – changed the face of America and combated ongoing discrimination to the present day.

Unfortunately, in 2013, the Supreme Court crippled one of the most effective protections of that act in its Shelby County v. Holder decision by rendering ineffective the requirement that certain jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination get pre-approval for voting changes. The elections last November was the first time in 50 years that voters of color were not fully protected at the polls. The lack of these protections created a chaotic election landscape that confused both voters and election officials.

The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015, introduced by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), seeks to repair the damage done by the Supreme Court by protecting voters in states that engage in recent and repeated acts of racial discrimination, while providing stronger enforcement tools nationwide to ensure fair elections.

We are grateful to the members of both parties who have that supported this bill, however, there has not been as strong a bipartisan showing as needed for the legislation that would repair and modernize the Voting Rights Act, the very law for which these foot soldiers fought and bled. In fact, we urge those members of Congress who have signed onto the commemoration of the Selma marchers, to realize there can only be meaning in this honor if the law these citizens fought for fully protects our citizens.

As John Legend eloquently said in his accepting the Oscar for best original song for the civil-rights drama “Selma”: “Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now … the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today.”

Honoring the foot soldiers of Selma is a great step forward on the march toward justice for those who sacrificed for us. However, the momentum must continue. There must be just as strong a showing of bipartisan support to fix the legislation for which they sacrificed, starting with congressional hearings and votes to move the bill forward.

As we approach the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of both Bloody Sunday and the enactment of the Voting Rights Act this year, now is the time for Congress to work together to restore and strengthen the law. Congress can fulfill the legacy of these foot soldiers by supporting the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015.

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