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Weekend Read: 55 years after ‘Bloody Sunday,’ voting rights are still under attack

When they looked over the steel-arched crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, the voting rights activists knew there would be trouble.

There, at the foot of the bridge in Selma, Alabama, stood a line of state troopers in riot gear, ready to meet a peaceful protest with brutal violence.

Days earlier in nearby Marion, troopers had fatally beaten and shot Jimmie Lee Jackson when he tried to protect his mother at a voting rights demonstration.  

Inspired by Jackson’s sacrifice, the activists marched in a thin column down the sidewalk of the bridge to the line of troopers, who warned them to turn back or face the consequences.

As the marchers stood firm, troopers advanced on them, knocked them to the ground and beat them with clubs, whips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Though they were forced back and bloodied, the activists did not fight back.

Television footage of the attack sparked national outrage, galvanized public opinion in favor of Black suffrage, and mobilized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, outlawing discrimination in voting.

Fifty-five years after “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, this pivotal moment in the battle for voting rights in this country is being remembered. This weekend, a delegation including members of Congress, veterans of the civil rights movement, clergy and others will commemorate the historic voting rights march by walking across the Selma bridge during the voting rights jubilee that runs through Sunday.

Next weekend, the delegation will travel to Montgomery for more commemorative events, including a performance of Ruby: The Story of Ruby Bridges, a play about the first Black girl to integrate an all-white elementary school in the South. The delegation also plans to visit the Equal Justice Initiative and meet its director, Bryan Stevenson.

The fight for voting rights

These events, however, shouldn’t be seen as a sign that the fight for voting rights is over. The fight continues and – just as it did in 1965 – Alabama remains at the epicenter.

“Although many people marched, bled, cried, suffered and died for the right to vote, Jim Crow is still alive and well, and continues to cast a long shadow on elections across the country,” said Nancy Abudu, SPLC deputy legal director for voting rights. “Elections continue to be confusing and filled with barriers to historically disenfranchised communities. We are deeply engaged in the fight to ensure that everyone can cast a ballot.”

The SPLC’s voting rights team is fighting the battle of the ballot on multiple fronts, in the courts and state legislatures. It recently investigated the many ways voter suppression is alive and well in Alabama.

Our team’s report outlines how voter suppression in Alabama takes many forms, including strict voter ID laws, the closure of polling places in predominantly Black counties, the purging of thousands of people from the voter rolls, and limited access to the ballot due to the lack of early voting, same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting. 

It also occurs in not-so-obvious ways: The state’s convoluted felony voter re-enfranchisement process keeps the ballot out of reach for many people. Also, Alabama’s opaque election administration spreads responsibilities among many state and local governments, making it difficult to ensure accountability.

Of course, this isn’t just an Alabama issue.

Many of the voter suppression tactics found across the country can be traced to 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case, which originated in Alabama, weakened the Voting Rights Act. The ruling gutted a key provision that required places with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval for any changes they make to voting rules.

In the years since that decision, lawmakers in numerous states have enacted laws that make it harder for citizens to vote. Since the ruling, about 1,600 polling places have been closed, and states have purged voter lists.

Several Southern states have also implemented voter ID laws that require voters to show a state-approved form of photo identification to vote – a law that discriminates against minority voters who are less likely to have such identification. And, of course, congressional and legislative districts have long been heavily gerrymandered to dilute the voting power of communities of color.

‘March on ballot boxes’

Despite the attack on voting rights across the country, there have been victories that are placing the ballot within reach of people who would otherwise be disenfranchised.

In Florida, the SPLC recently won a decisive federal appeals court ruling that found Floridians’ right to vote can’t be denied on the basis of wealth. The ruling came after Florida lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis effectively instituted a modern-day poll tax following the overwhelming passage of a ballot initiative to restore the vote to 1.4 million of their fellow residents with previous felony convictions – the largest single expansion of voting rights since the Voting Rights Act.

The new law meant that hundreds of thousands of newly enfranchised people still couldn’t vote because of the legal debt they owed – such as fines, fees and court costs – but couldn’t afford to pay. But, due to the court’s ruling, the SPLC’s clients will be able to cast ballots in Florida’s March 17 primary elections. And in April, the SPLC is going to trial in an attempt to have the law declared unconstitutional and re-enfranchise hundreds of thousands more.

In Louisiana last year, thousands of returning citizens became eligible to vote for the first time under a law the SPLC helped pass in the state Legislature. The law restored the right to vote to people who have been out of prison for at least five years but who remain on probation and parole.

In Mississippi, the SPLC is fighting in court to end that state’s lifetime voting ban for people with disqualifying offenses. And, over the next several months leading up to the November election, the SPLC will conduct grassroots initiatives to encourage people to register, restore their right to vote, and cast their ballots.

“The right to vote should not be the fight to vote, but states across America are doing just that – making it hard for people to cast a ballot,” Abudu said. “As Martin Luther King Jr. said at the end of the successful march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, ‘let us march on ballot boxes’ until everyone can vote.”

Photo by Charles Moore/Getty Images