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Ghost of Jim Crow continues to haunt nation on 50th anniversary of Selma march

Remembering the sacrifices of the past is important, but it’s not enough. We must address the racial and economic inequality that is so evident 50 years after the Voting Rights Act and 150 years after slavery was abolished.

The eyes of the nation will be trained on Selma, Alabama, this weekend as tens of thousands of people gather to watch President Obama address the nation on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. 

It’s important that we commemorate March 7, 1965, as the day the world was given a window into the brutality and the depravity of racism in the Deep South.

We must never forget the price that was paid to secure the vote for African Americans – or the incredible force of the people’s movement that finally put Jim Crow in a coffin. And we must never forget the martyrs, like Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose murder at the hands of an Alabama state trooper inspired the Selma march.

But we can’t afford to reflect too long on the bloodstained victories of the past. 

We must focus on today – and tomorrow – because the ghost of Jim Crow continues to haunt our nation.

The proof is everywhere you look, and the victims are piling up around us.

This week I read the Department of Justice’s damning report on Ferguson, Missouri, and I was not surprised. The DOJ investigation exposed nothing less than a brutal, racist police force that shakes down poor, black residents to pad the city’s coffers.

Fixing Ferguson is imperative. But the reality is that Ferguson is simply one example of a criminal justice system that is thoroughly infected with racism.

It’s why we have the world’s largest prison population … it’s why African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of white people … it’s why cities have revived debtors’ prisons that punish and exploit the poorest, most vulnerable among us.

While perhaps its most visible and horrifying signpost, the criminal justice system is merely one part of a larger, structural problem.

The richest 3 percent hold more than half of our nation’s wealth, and our poor keep getting poorer. But this poverty is not shared equally.

Black people are more than twice as likely as whites to be unemployed. Their families are three times more likely than white families to live in poverty. And the average white family has 13 times as much wealth as the average black one. 

Every day, however, politicians defend the narrow interests of the wealthiest among us while blaming the poor, the weak, the sick, the “other” for their poverty and for the nation’s problems.

This noxious idea, underpinning the drive to shred the social safety net, is what spawned Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remark, an example of the same kind of coded language used by white supremacists 50 years ago.

Meanwhile, our public schools – the once widely supported wellsprings of democracy, equality and economic prosperity – are becoming more segregated.

As education funding is stripped away, often under the guise of “school choice,” African-American children increasingly attend schools that are “separate and unequal,” many of them dropout factories that extinguish opportunity.

While African Americans can now typically vote without fear of physical violence or retribution, this precious right is being eroded by newly enacted voting restrictions – and racial gerrymandering is drowning out their voices.

These barriers are only compounded by voter disinterest: The 2014 election saw the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. In the last presidential election, 90 million eligible voters did not cast ballots. 

With your support, we’re trying to do our part.

We’re pushing back against mass incarceration in Deep South states that imprison people at the highest rates in the country.

We’re reforming school policies that push the most vulnerable children out of the classroom and into brutal detention facilities. 

We’re working to ensure economic justice for the poorest communities – by eliminating debtors’ prisons, and more.

And, to revive interest in voting and civic activism among the nation’s youth, we’ve created a new Teaching Tolerance classroom film – Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot. Right now we’re shipping copies to thousands of educators across the country.

As the events unfold tomorrow and throughout this historic weekend, public officials from around the country will pay homage to those who risked everything for equality.

On Sunday, dozens of members of Congress will visit the Civil Rights Memorial outside our office in Montgomery to lay a wreath in honor of those who died for racial justice.

Many of these public officials sincerely want to do something about the growing racial and economic inequality that is so evident 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was enacted and 150 years after slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment.

But for some, I fear, the events are just a photo opportunity. We cannot allow them to wash their hands of responsibility and then retreat to Washington to resume their destructive politics.

Remembering the sacrifices of the past is important, but it’s not enough. If our nation is to be true to the ideals of the civil rights movement, we must make concrete changes that reflect a real commitment to justice for all.