On Thursday, I sat with other civil rights and religious leaders from around the country as we met with President Obama and several Cabinet members. The President discussed his pending trip to Selma, Alabama where he will address the nation on the 50th anniversary of the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge where Hosea Williams, John Lewis (now Congressman Lewis) and many others were beaten as they peacefully attempted to walk across the bridge in their continued push for voting rights. Americans, both Black and White (like Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner and others) were killed in the fight for equality, but we eventually achieved the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many gave their lives, and many sacrificed immensely so that you and I could vote and have a voice in how we are governed. As I met with the President and others last week however, I remembered sitting in the Supreme Court in 2013 listening to oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder. The decision in that case essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act by ruling Section 4 unconstitutional. In other words, areas with a history of discrimination no longer needed preclearance from the Justice Department before making changes to their election laws or district maps. Fifty years after that Bloody Sunday on Edmund Pettus, we cannot allow such a blatant assault on our progress to take place. Let this moment be a wake up call to everyone.
I am honored to be chosen to lead the morning sermon next Sunday at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma which was the headquarters where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others operated from as they organized their voting campaign. After the service, thousands of us will march across Edmund Pettus to commemorate five decades since that pivotal moment in our history. I was only 10 years old when that march happened in '65, but I have attended reenactments for many years. This year, in my sermon, I will challenge everyone to mobilize and galvanize a public campaign and call on Congress to deal with the Shelby decision. We cannot just memorialize and recall the past; we must ensure that the blood, sweat and tears of the past were not in vain. If we do not fight to restore Section 4 and protect our right to vote, then we make a mockery of what was done in '65.
We cannot raise awareness about the heroines and heroes of history, and then turn around and be cowards 50 years later. This Congress must deal with overt moves among states to obstruct people's right to vote, and they must restore federal protections of voting rights. Almost immediately after the Shelby ruling, jurisdictions in several states either passed or attempted to pass draconian new laws like voter ID requirements that make it harder for people of color and the poor to vote. That is no coincidence. Poll taxes may be replaced by slicker new schemes, but the outcome is still the same. If we do not organize around this issue, we will do a disservice to all those who gave their lives and livelihoods before us.
When John Legend accepted an Oscar for Best Original Song along with Common last week, he made the following statement: "We say that Selma is now because the struggle for justice is now." I couldn't agree more. Just like 50 years ago, and throughout history for that matter, musicians and artists call attention to issues and raise awareness alongside activists and civil rights leaders. It's important for young people to understand that the struggle for equality isn't over. Yes, we have achieved many things -- including seeing the first Black President of this great country hold office -- but we have work ahead of us. On our journey towards continued advancement, we cannot allow our previous gains to be taken away.
I support those that want a constitutional amendment for the right to vote. It will be a long and tedious route, but one that we should pursue. And we will also keep the pressure on Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act to its original form so that states are not allowed to nullify federal protections. It is those federal protections that prevent states and jurisdictions from ending early voting days, enacting stricter ID laws, lessening the amount of voting days, ending Sunday 'souls to the polls' and other measures that disenfranchise voters from the process.
There are those that seek to make this weekend a memory of battles fought and won, rather than a challenge to protect battles won by winning the war against states' rights and those that seek to lessen people's ability to vote. Fifty years from the moment those tired feet set foot on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we must honor their legacy by marching and fighting against the challenges that continue. The struggle for justice is indeed now.
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