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Bennet Kelley Headshot

No Turning 'Round: Selma's Anniversary Call to Advance Voting Rights

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On the Saturday night before the 2012 election, I was at a polling station in Florida where the predominantly minority voters stood in line as much as five hours waiting to vote. My job was to encourage them to stay in line, but the voters I spoke with needed little encouragement since their sense of resolve was evident. They knew why the lines were long, as Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott had reduced early voting hours, and few left on my watch since they were determined to have their vote counted.

As they stood in line I could hear the echoes of the civil rights anthem "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round" and thought of Selma, Alabama which is only 145 miles from the Florida border. Voting rights marchers sang this song after being tear-gassed and clubbed by state troopers intent on stopping the march at Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge in what became known as "Bloody Sunday".

Bloody Sunday sparked a national outcry and led President Johnson to deliver an address to Congress the next week calling for enactment of what became the Voting Rights Act. President Johnson explained, "At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord... So it was last week in Selma, Alabama."

The tide had turned and on March 21, 1964, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, marchers finally advanced over the bridge and eventually to Montgomery. Today, these events are commemorated in the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail and the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma.

Watching the Florida voters engage in their own quiet march, it dawned on me that this is not a battle that is done and won and confined to museums and monuments, but rather is anything but over.

In his speech to Congress, President Johnson stressed:

Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people.

Since the election of President Obama, however, we have seen a coordinated campaign by the Republicans to reverse this expansion. For example, Florida and five other states have enacted legislation to limit early voting. Other restrictions like requiring voter identification and/or proof of citizenship and limiting voter registration drives have passed in over a dozen states. (See Map of Suppression Efforts.)

Republicans have acknowledged that these restrictions are designed and intended to reduce the minority vote and in fact, it is estimated that the long lines in Florida led 201,000 citizens not to vote. When these restrictions are coupled with the Republican's non-legislative voter suppression tactics such as voter misinformation and intimidation campaigns or voter purges, it is an direct assault on the legitimacy of our democracy by seeking to prevent it from reflecting the will of the people.

The Republicans even took on the Voting Rights Act itself and won, when last year the Supreme Court struck down key enforcement provisions of the Act in Shelby County v. Holder. The Shelby County decision has allowed states like Texas and North Carolina to implement restrictions that would never have survived Justice Department review under the Act.

Fortunately, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and former House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) have introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 to restore the Act in light of the Shelby
County
decision. Unfortunately, however, there has been zero action on these bills.

Selma calls us once again to action. Next March will be the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and what should have been a celebratory moment of how far we have come since those troubled days is more likely to be a bitter reminder of how far we still have to go.

So today on the 49th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, please contact your Senators and Congressman urging them to support prompt passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act. If Congress fails to act this year, then we as citizens must take a stand for democracy and I ask that you join me in pledging to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday as a call to action by marching in Selma or your own community to help turn the tide back towards freedom's land.