Selma, Alabama has long occupied a central place in the story of our nation’s struggle to extend voting rights to African-Americans. In 1965, the town, located in the heart of the Black Belt, became the launching pad for the Alabama Project – a campaign led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that sought to expose the then-existing national crisis of black voter disenfranchisement and compel desperately needed federal intervention.
In 1961, only 156 of 15,000 voting-age African-Americans in Dallas County (where Selma sits) were registered to vote and resistance to black voter mobilization efforts was at its height. Election officials imposed complex literacy tests subjecting eligible citizens to be quizzed on arcane provisions of the state constitution, and the period for voter registration was limited to just two days a month. Litigation under then-existing federal statutes proved wholly ineffective in eliminating the barriers. Registrars defied court orders, resorted to gamesmanship to sidestep rulings and used trickery to prevent courts from imposing injunctive relief. Dallas County officials were certainly not alone in their resistance to the mandates of the 15th Amendment. All throughout the South, officials employed tests and devices, and resorted to violence to deny blacks access to the ballot box.
After Bloody Sunday, it became clear that the federal government had an important role to play in our nation’s civil rights movement and in efforts to fully enforce the equality principles enshrined within the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Shortly after the attack launched on law-abiding citizens, the Voting Rights Act was drafted, vigorously debated by Congress and signed into law by Lyndon B. Johnson in August 1965.
Today’s Alabama, like many parts of the country, reflects signs of progress. Much of that progress is directly attributable to – and the consequence of – vigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Department of Justice, civil rights organizations and other private litigants. Today, black and white Alabamians are registered at encouragingly comparable rates and African-Americans represent 25% of Alabama’s state legislature.
Despite this progress, there certainly remain significant and ongoing challenges. For example, blacks in Alabama are significantly under-represented throughout the state judiciary. And racially polarized voting patterns remain stark in many areas, making it unlikely that minority candidates can prevail in state-wide contests.
Congressman John Lewis, who was clubbed on the head during the Bloody Sunday attack 45 years ago, aptly observed that “President Johnson signed that act, but it was written by the people of Selma.” Congressman Lewis’s words remind us of the important role that the public has long played and must continue to play in safeguarding voting rights.
Indeed, we must remain vigilant of the obstacles that still stand in the way of many voters seeking to access the ballot box all throughout the country, particularly during this mid-term election year. Many would-be voters are finding their registration applications rejected for ministerial errors; reports of schemes that aim to intimidate and suppress turnout continue to surface and attempts to adopt restrictive measures such as mandatory photo identification requirements continue to emerge in several states. These modern-day efforts to limit the ability of minority voters seeking to fully participate in the political process make clear that we still need the strong medicine of federal voting rights law and federal oversight.
Laws such as the Voting Rights Act, and all of its comprehensive measures, accompanied by more aggressive federal enforcement will continue to help block and deter much, though not all, voting discrimination in places where it rears its ugly head.
The Section 5 preclearance provision of the Act, which requires states such as Alabama and others with a long history of discrimination to submit their voting changes for federal review remains particularly critical. The Supreme Court issued a ruling just last year in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, that leaves Section 5’s important protections in place and its effectiveness in both blocking and deterring discrimination remains undeniable.
Other important provisions of the Voting Rights Act include Section 2 which prohibits acts that dilute or deny minority voting strength. This law will undoubtedly play an important role in safeguarding minority voting rights during the upcoming redistricting cycle. Section 203, which provides protections for minority language groups and the Act’s federal observer provision, allows the Justice Department to deploy observers to the places where there are reports of potential Election Day problems – a provision that will most certainly be used during the upcoming mid-term election cycle.
Other federal laws that continue to play a key role include the National Voter Registration Act (also referred to as the “Motor Voter” law) which requires departments of motor vehicles and social service agencies to make registration opportunities available to the public. But too many states are falling short on their obligations under the Motor Voter Law leaving many Americans unregistered and on the margins. The Help America Vote Act, adopted in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, has helped modernize the kinds of voting machines used in many communities. But there is still much work that remains to be done.
The 45th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday should serve as a wake up call for all Americans. While this most certainly provides an opportunity to reflect upon and observe the progress that has been made, more attention needs to be given to the problems that continue to beleaguer our political process. Although many Americans appreciate the significance of the principle that every vote counts, the reality is that every problem further erodes the system. Almost 13 percent of all eligible voters in our country are not registered at present.
If we are to be regarded as the world’s leading democracy, we must work to fix the breaks in the system and ensure that we reach the millions of eligible but not yet registered voters who are locked out of the system. We must also push for more aggressive enforcement of federal voting rights laws, and available state laws, to ensure that we are using every tool in our arsenal to address ongoing voting discrimination and other problems that threaten the integrity of our democracy. In so doing, we appropriately honor the legacy and work of those who marched and endured violence in Selma 45 years ago today.