Remembering Selma

50 Years After Bloody Sunday the Fight Over Voting Rights Continues

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, and of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And this year marks the 27th anniversary of Research Design Associates’ (RDA) first voting rights case. RDA’s voting experts are working on an Alabama redistricting case now. A half-century after Bloody Sunday, the fight for the right to vote continues.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Alabama’s state legislature passed a new constitution that disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites with such impediments to voting as a poll tax and a literacy test. Selma is the seat of Dallas County and according to 1960 census data, 57% of the population was black. However, of the approximately 15,000 blacks of voting age, only 130 (less than 1%) were registered to vote. Over 80% of Dallas County black lived below the poverty line with many working as sharecroppers, farmhands, maids and janitors so poll taxes and literacy tests prevented most from registering to vote. Organized efforts to register blacks during the early 1960s were blocked by state and local officials, the White Citizen’s Council, and the Ku Klux Klan. Many of those who attempted to register or to vote were threatened, beaten, fired from their jobs, etc. Most of the millions of African Americans across the South could not vote due to similar discriminatory requirements and practices.


It was in this context that civil rights leader and deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by a state trooper during a peaceful march in Marion, Alabama on February 26, 1965. Marion is in Perry County, adjacent to Dallas County. It was in reaction to this killing that Selma civil rights leaders called for an extraordinary series of three marches from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. The first march on March 7th became a landmark event for the civil rights movement when many of the 600 marchers were beaten and tear gassed by white lawmen at the Edmund Pettus bridge after leaving Selma. The violent events were nicknamed “Bloody Sunday.” Two days later, after the second march, another civil rights activist, Boston minister James Reeb, was beaten and murdered by a white group. These events led to a national outcry for protection of the marchers. With Alabama Governor George Wallace refusing to protect the marchers, President Lyndon Johnson sent in 2,000 U.S. Army soldiers and 1,900 Alabama National Guards under Federal command. Under their protection, the third march started on March 21st and on March 25th 25,000 marchers arrived at the state capitol in Montgomery.


Johnson’s administration had been working on a voting rights law to enable all Americans to register and vote without harassment. On March 15th, between the second and third marches, President Johnson held a televised joint session of Congress requesting the bill’s introduction and passage. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was introduced in Congress on March 17th. The bill contained several special provisions that targeted certain state and local governments nationwide. Section 5 of the Act required jurisdictions with significant histories of voter discrimination to “pre-clear,” that is, get federal approval from the Department of Justice (DOJ), for any new voting practices or procedures, and to show that they do not have a discriminatory effect. After much contentious congressional debate, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed by President Johnson on August 6th.


We have made significant gains in voting rights since the landmark Voting Rights Act. In June 2013, though, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court in the Alabama case Shelby County v. Holder invalidated the coverage formula of Section 5 of the Act ruling that Congress had not taken into account the nation’s racial progress when singling out states for federal oversight. Within hours of the Supreme Court’s decision, some Southern states began putting in effect voting changes that had been blocked by DOJ and federal courts such as strict voter ID laws and reduction of opportunities for early voting.DOJ had blocked these proposed changes on the grounds that they would disproportionately affect the elderly, and black and Hispanic voters. It is clear that Alabama has been central to the voting rights debate and RDA experts are working on an Alabama case filed shortly after the Shelby decision. In my next blog, I’ll review voting law changes since Shelby.


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