March 7, 1965, 25-year-old Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman John Lewis helped guide hundreds of marchers out of Selma, Alabama, in the direction of Montgomery. The civil rights activists were mobilized in support of the Martin Luther King Jr.-led Selma Voting Rights Campaign. They were quickly met by a line of Alabama State Troopers at the behest of Democratic Gov. George Wallace and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark.
The scene of the savagery was U.S. 80 over the Alabama River on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate general and grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, no less.
March 7, 2015, Lewis — now a Democratic congressman for Georgia’s 5th District — used his Twitter account to give a firsthand accounting of the events of Bloody Sunday half a century before.
“Before we left a little church called Brown Chapel [African Methodist Episcopal Church], we knelt and joined together in prayer,” wrote Lewis. “About 600 of us left Brown Chapel AME to walk in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion. When we got to the apex of the bridge, down below we saw a sea of blue. When we came within hearing distance, a trooper identified himself and said, ‘I’m Major John Cloud of the Alabama State Troopers. This is an unlawful march. It will not be allowed to continue. I’ll give you three minutes to disperse and return to your homes or to your church.’ The man walking beside me — [march co-leader] Hosea Williams — said, ‘Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray.’ The major paused for a minute and then he said, ‘Troopers advance!’ And you saw these men putting on their gas masks. They came toward us beating us with nightsticks, bullwhips, trampling us with horses, releasing the teargas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. My legs went out from under me. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die. I had a concussion there at the bridge, and I’ve never been able to recall how we made it back.”
The images of this violence scandalized the country, providing the groundswell of support needed to introduce and ultimately pass President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965 — which was introduced 50 years ago Tuesday. This landmark legislation removed poll taxes, literacy tests and all other the arbitrary road blocks and violations of the 14th and 15th Amendments placed in front of black voters.
But, as I wrote in my July 13, 2013 column, “SCOTUS giveth, then it taketh,” the high court issued a 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act.
“The decision … revolves around Section 4 of the VRA which establishes a ‘coverage formula’ to determine which states and local governments … need to get approval before changing their voting laws,” reported John Schwartz of The New York Times on June 25, 2013. “The justices ruled that Section 4 is unconstitutional, and that the formula used for decades — revised and extended several times by Congress — can no longer be used to establish those ‘preclearance’ requirements.”
A bill to address this gaping hole in the law was introduced Feb. 4 by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and John Conyers, D-Michigan. Several politicians including Lewis; Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont; and President Barack Obama have vocally supported the idea.
“Meanwhile, the [Voting Rights Act], the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor,” said Obama March 7 on that same bridge. “How can that be? The [Voting Rights Act] was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic effort. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President [George W.] Bush signed its renewal when he was in office.”
The VRA’s presence continues to be sorely missed. Something must be done. As Lewis would attest, history does not change by standing still. You have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep things moving.