Honor the Martyrs of Selma by Fighting for a New Voting Rights Act

By Marc H. Morial

President & CEO, National Urban League

 

This week marks the 51st anniversary of the historic Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, a seminal moment that struck a blow against institutionalized disenfranchisement and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

 

The impetus for the march was the February murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young African-American demonstrator shot to death by an Alabama state trooper. The first attempt, on March 7, would become known as Bloody Sunday as troopers wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas set upon the 600 marchers at the Edmund Pettis Bridge and beat them back to Selma.

Troopers again blocked the second attempt, on March 9, led by Martin Luther King himself. Later that night, segregationists beat white minister James Reeb to death.

The third march, begun March 21 under the protection of federalized National Guard troops, was successful, and the protestors reached Montgomery on March 25 after walking 12 hours a day and sleeping in fields.

That would not be an end to the bloody violence, however. Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother of five, was shot and killed by Klansmen as she helped drive protestors to the Montgomery airport at the conclusion of the march. Months later, Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels, who’d come to Selma after Bloody Sunday and stayed to register voters in Alabama, was killed by a bullet meant for a teenage girl he pushed out of harm’s way.

As President Obama remarked on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, “What a solemn debt we owe. Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that
debt?”

We must honor the memory of these martyrs by working to pass a new voting rights bill. The 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder effectively voter protection for African-Americans, and states rushed in Shelby’s wake to pass dicriminatory voter restrictions. They cann’t be allowed to stand.

As President Lyndon B. Johnson said as he signed the Voting Rights Act, “Those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths.”