State legislators attack the right to protest

Fifty-two years ago today, famed civil rights judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. issued a momentous federal court ruling that prohibited Alabama Gov. George Wallace and a local sheriff from interfering with voting rights marchers.

It came 10 days after Bloody Sunday, the day protesters began marching to the Alabama Capitol only to be turned back and brutally beaten by state troopers and a sheriff’s posse as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.


Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr.

Four days after Johnson's ruling, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led more than 3,000 marchers across the bridge and then on to the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery – their right to protest upheld, their path unimpeded by law enforcement.

The events of March 1965 led to passage of the Voting Rights Act that effectively ended more than seven decades of Jim Crow segregation in the Deep South.

But today, lawmakers in 18 states want to crack down on the right to protest.

From Florida to Washington, they’re considering everything from criminal prosecution of people engaged in peaceful protest to pre-emptive arrests of those who may protest in the future.

In Arizona, for example, legislation would reclassify protest as “rioting,” a form of racketeering, and empower law enforcement to seize protesters’ assets. In North Dakota, a bill would shift blame from drivers who hit protesters with their cars to the protestors themselves. The measure has inspired similar bills in Minnesota, Tennessee and Iowa.

“You can protest all you want, but you can’t protest up on a roadway,” said North Dakota Rep. Keith Kempenitch in January. “It’s dangerous for everybody.”

That’s not how Judge Johnson saw it.

“The law is clear,” he wrote, “that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups. These rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.”

Many legislators today are all too willing to forget the sacrifices made by those in Selma.

Recently, we hosted U.S. Rep. John Lewis and other civil rights leaders at the Civil Rights Memorial Center to mark the 52nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Lewis, who almost lost his life on Bloody Sunday, laid a wreath in remembrance of those who died in the fight for justice.

“We came here in memory of so many fighters for the cause of freedom, justice, equality and the dignity of man," Lewis said. "They gave everything they had – even their lives."

It is shameful that legislators are so quick to forget.