50 years ago on March 7, 1965, 25-year old John Lewis’ was viciously attacked by racist Alabama State Troopers, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. His crime was marching on behalf of voting rights for black Americans. The police attacked him with such ferocity, that they fractured his skull. On that day, nearly five dozen African-Americans were beaten so badly on the bridge, that they had to be hospitalized. The fateful day is remembered as “Bloody Sunday”.
Police turned the 600 marchers around that day, leaving them bloodied and battered, from the blunt force of billy clubs, the cutting lashes of bullwhips, and the lacerating power of a hose wrapped in barb wire. But two days later, the marchers were back on the bridge, risking life and limb, but undaunted in the face of danger. Two Sundays after that, they began another march from Selma to Montgomery. This time there was no turning back. On Thursday March 25, 1965 they reached the capitol, 25,000 strong. They arrived with heads held high — determined, defiant, and dignified.
The stark brutality of the police response to the Selma March was captured by TV cameras, and the horrifying images helped further galvanize the civil rights movement. A little over a week after the original march, and the brutal police response to it, President Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress stressing the urgent need to secure a Voting Rights Act. On August 6, 1965 he signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
John Lewis, the young man who was mercilessly beaten by police, is now a member of the U.S. Congress, representing Alabama’s neighbor, the state of Georgia. Lewis was arrested over 40 times in the 1960s, for attempts to secure civil rights and voting rights for black Americans. Now he is in his 14th term in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving a nation that has also elected an African-American President to back to back terms in the White House.
The original Selma march drew around 600 protesters. Now, half a century later, 100,000 Americans are expected to descend upon the city to commemorate the 50th anniversary. John Lewis will be there. President Obama, the nation’s first black President, will be addressing a crowd of thousands. Speakers, including President Obama, will have an opportunity to recall the heroic sacrifices that took place a half century ago. They will applaud some of the progress the nation has made. However, it will also be a time to acknowledge that the country has some unfinished business to take care of.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court stripped away some of the protections of the Voting Rights Act. John Lewis, a man who endured relentless arrests and physical assaults to secure those protections, had this to say about the ruling:
What the Supreme Court did was to put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act helped liberate not just a people but a nation.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, Congress has failed to step up to secure voting rights for the American people. Many politicians are in Selma to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Selma march. However, if they merely show up to pay their respects to the great men and women of the past, while failing to take action today, their appearance will be remembered as nothing more than a hollow charade. Members of Congress who want to recognize the sacrifices made at Selma, should do so by restoring the protections the marchers once secured. That progress has been carved away.
A statement issued by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, perhaps best captures the urgency of the moment, and the hypocrisy of those who fail to act:
Fifty years ago this week, the Bloody Sunday marchers were brutalized by police for taking a stand, thereby inspiring the nation to adopt the bipartisan Voting Rights Act.
The VRA has become one of the most successful civil rights laws in American history, an indispensable tool for combating voter discrimination into the 21st century, and a fitting tribute to the Selma marchers. But the legacy of those who risked their lives in Selma has been unraveled by the voting discrimination that has emerged even more starkly since the Supreme Court gutted the VRA in 2013.
Members of Congress from both parties are going to Selma to honor the marchers’ memory, but many have done nothing to restore the marchers’ legacy.
Commemoration requires legislation. Selma isn’t just a photo op, it’s a solemn remembrance of the blood, sweat, tears, and lives that went into securing voting rights for racial minorities in this country.
The Bloody Sunday march is not a parade, and it is hypocritical for members to attend the event and then do nothing to advance a VRA restoration when they return to Washington. We expect every member of Congress marching in Selma this week to work diligently and thoughtfully to pass legislation that fully protects voters from discrimination.
It is not enough simply to remember Selma. The courageous men and women on the Edmund Pettus Bridge could not be deterred by brutal force. They marched forward with undaunted courage, staring death in the face. Members of Congress who lack the minimal courage required to pass legislation protecting the right to vote, have no business paying tribute to the marchers in Selma. By their inaction, their allegiance lies with the Alabama State Troopers who turned the marchers around. Some people are still on the wrong side of History.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.