MONTGOMERY, Ala. | Days before the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many of those who marched for its passage gathered to recall their struggle and call for the act's renewal.
"The denial of the right to vote was a dehumanization process," Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference told a packed audience yesterday at the Alabama State Capitol.
"While it was ridiculous and tragic, your life was in jeopardy to even seek the right to vote."
Lowery spoke as part of a panel for the Court TV program In Pursuit of Justice. The show is intended to commemorate the significance of the Voting Rights Act, parts of which are scheduled to expire in 2007, and discuss ways to engage more youth in the political process.
Joining Lowery on the show was Center founder and chief trial counsel Morris Dees, who joined the call for the act's renewal.
"It is necessary that the Voting Rights Act is renewed in 2007," Dees said. "If we didn't have the Voting Rights Act in place we would have situation where pre-clearance is no long necessary for adding chunks of land to a city. This has the effect of diluting the minority vote. We should keep all aspects of the act, and I feel confident that congress will overwhelmingly pass it."
Many who spoke on the show's panels recalled the often-violent struggle to gain the right to vote.
"I had never been afraid," recalled Amelia Robinson, who was gassed and beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the "Bloody Sunday" march on March 7, 1965.
"For 30 years, people were working to get the right to vote, and it was like a volcano that exploded when Martin Luther King arrived. But I wasn't afraid. If it was my turn to die, I was ready."
Robinson was one of many who spoke who played active roles in the Civil Rights Movement. Others present included Gwen Patton, the Rev F.D. Reese, Herman Harris and Bernard LaFayette.
Not all who spoke, however, were part of the original movement. Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright reflected on a city that is a different place than when the marchers finished their trek at the Capitol steps 40 years ago.
"It's a changed Montgomery," said Bright. "The Selma to Montgomery March paved the way for the Voting Rights Act, so it is appropriate that discussions about the renewal of the Voting Rights Act take place here today. It's unconscionable today that portions of the Voting Rights Act may be allowed to expire in 2007. Voting is not a legislative right, it's a human right."
Gwen Patton said it is important to remember that the legislative process extended voting rights to all disenfranchised people, not just African-Americans.
"The Voting Rights Act was not just for black people," said Patton. "Poor whites could vote, and women could vote too."