The Dark Stain of Bloody Sunday in Alabama

Photo courtesy of the National Archives

Fifty-two years ago on a Sunday afternoon, civil rights activists, led by a young John Lewis, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to demand the right to vote, only to be dragged to the ground and brutally beaten by white Alabama state troopers. The blood that flowed from their bodies is how the day became known as Bloody Sunday.
 
The Selma to Montgomery marches of March 1965 were in part sparked by the tragic death of civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson a month before. Jackson was fatally shot by a white Alabama state trooper after participating in a demonstration calling for the release of James Orange who had been arrested for enlisting minors to participate in voter registration drives in Alabama.
 
At the time of the Selma campaign, less than one percent of eligible black voters in Montgomery County were registered to vote. Black voters seeking to gain access to the ballot box were blocked by discriminatory literacy tests and poll taxes. Those who sought to organize were intimidated by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Council.
 
The televised beating of civil rights activists in Alabama was seen by Americans across the country and galvanized national support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson the following August, the Act guaranteed the right to vote to all Americans regardless of race or ethnicity. The Voting Rights Act sought to prevent states with a history of racial discrimination — like Alabama — from abridging the right to vote.
 
For nearly fifty years, between 1965 and 2013, Alabama had been one of few states — along with Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia — that had to seek federal approval before making changes to voting rights laws to ensure that they were compliant with the Voting Rights Act.
 
In 2013, Shelby County, Alabama sought to challenge the constitutionality of federal approval in a Supreme Court case that became known as Shelby County v. Holder. Alabama argued that it should no longer have to seek federal approval because race relations had changed in the state. Voting turnout among black voters had been at historic levels and a record number of black candidates had been elected to public offices, the state argued.
 
The Supreme Court sided with Alabama and essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act. As soon as the Shelby decision came down, Alabama and other states that had been subject to federal approval rushed to change their voting laws, enacting new laws requiring voters show photo ID, eliminating same-day registration and early voting, and purging inactive voters from registration rolls.
 
Since the Shelby decision, Alabama has found itself in several new battles over voting rights that echo the days of Bloody Sunday. In 2015, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley shut down 31 DMV offices in predominately rural, black communities, preventing eligible voters from obtaining the necessary ID to vote. A probe by the Department of Transportation concluded Alabama’s DMV closures had a discriminatory impact because black residents were being vastly under-served by the state’s services.

Another investigation by the Department of Justice into Alabama’s voter registration practices found the state had failed to comply with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to give eligible voters a chance to register to vote when they obtain their driver’s licenses. 
 
Alabama is currently the subject of several ongoing lawsuits under the Voting Rights Act. In December 2015, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sued Alabama alleging the state’s voter ID law disproportionately harms voters of color. The trial is set for fall 2017. A recent study by the Washington Post confirmed that, indeed, voter ID laws do suppress voting turnout among racial minorities.

The voting changes made in Alabama after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder show that race relations haven’t improved enough in Alabama to defer to state authority. We aren’t there yet. We still need the Voting Rights Act.
 
Congress must restore the Voting Rights Act to ensure the promise that all Americans, regardless of their race or ethnicity, can meaningfully participate in our democracy. That promise is what John Lewis and other civil rights activists shed blood for on that Bloody Sunday fifty-two years ago.