On Bloody Sunday anniversary, Black leaders say the fight for voting rights endures

“We no longer have to count how many jelly beans are in a jar, but old battles have become new again,” U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama told theGrio.

As the nation marks 58 years since Bloody Sunday, Black civil rights leaders and elected officials are committed to winning what they see as the modern fight to protect voting rights.

On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers pummeled voting rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma as they attempted to make their way to Montgomery, the state capital, to protest Jim Crow laws that denied the right to vote for millions of Black Americans. 

Within months, the violence of that day propelled the nation forward and galvanized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. However, nearly six decades later, leaders warn that the country is slipping backward in the progress to achieve racial equality and protect the right to vote.

In this March 7, 1965 file photo, an Alabama state trooper swings a billy club at John Lewis (right foreground), chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to break up a voting rights march in Selma, Alabama. Lewis went on to continue efforts against voter suppression as a U.S. congressman. (Photo: AP/File)

“We no longer have to count how many jelly beans are in a jar, but old battles have become new again,” U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama told theGrio. 

Guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar and other voter suppression tactics used historically to stop Black Americans from exercising their right to vote compelled the marchers of Bloody Sunday — led by civil rights icon John Lewis — to peacefully protest against racial discrimination and intimidation at the ballot.

Sewell, the only Black member of Alabama’s congressional delegation, said today new legal tactics had been implemented to suppress voter turnout.

“Now, all of a sudden, we have state laws that will restrict you from being handed water while you’re waiting in line,” she said, referring to a law enacted in Georgia in 2021.

Since the 2020 presidential election — and following incessant false claims of voter fraud by former president Donald Trump and his allies — there have been more than 400 bills introduced in states across the country that restrict voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice

Moreover, rulings from the Supreme Court in recent years have struck down key elements of the Voting Rights Act, making it increasingly difficult for the federal government to enforce oversight. Several legal cases, most of which involve the redistricting of congressional maps, have been battle-tested in the courts. 

The Brennan Center cites that of the 73 cases that have been filed challenging state drawings of maps, more than half remain pending. One of those cases is where the civil rights movement found critical momentum due to the events of Bloody Sunday.

“The fight to restore the full enforceability of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is hanging in the balance as the Supreme Court is reviewing yet another Alabama case before them,” said Sewell. “When you think about what questions were asked, and the conservative nature of this [Supreme Court], it will strike another big blow to the Voting Rights Act by this time attacking Section 2, which allows for people to sue and show racial discrimination in voting after the fact.” 

People gathered in Selma, Alabama, on Sunday to listen to the speech of President Joe Biden on the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. One sign bears the likeness of the late Rep. John Lewis, who was among the marchers beaten in 1965. (Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Svante Myrick, president and CEO of the progressive advocacy group People For the American Way, says he doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that the rise in bills attempting to limit voting happened after the 2020 death of John Lewis.

“They were thinking to themselves, ‘Okay, there he goes … they have no defenders left. It is time to carry out the full-out assault that we’ve wanted to see, frankly, since the Civil War,’” Myrick told theGrio. He said the goal of far right-wing conservatives is to “take away the right to vote for any people that [they] deem to be insufficiently American — people who are not white, people who are not men, and frankly, people who will not vote conservatively.”

He continued: “But that coordinated attack only comes because they think nobody’s watching.”

Myrick said now more than ever, pro-voting rights lawmakers and activists have to “beat back those bills in the state legislature and fight to pass more progressive legislation.”

Last year, Democrats attempted to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore key protections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court reversed, and the Freedom to Vote Act, which would expand voting protections. However, Democrats failed to overcome Senate Republicans’ use of the filibuster tactic.

In a divided Congress in which the House of Representatives is led by Republicans resistant to passing any voting rights legislation, Myricks admits, “It’s not going to pass this year.”

He still applauds President Joe Biden for going on the record to call for ending the filibuster to pass voting rights reform on Capitol Hill, a position the White House was previously reluctant to take.

“[It] was a direct result of a lot of organizing by People for the American Way and other similar groups,” said Myrick. “That is a huge breakthrough. It creates not only an opportunity in 2024, but actually something to run on in 2024 — a platform that should inspire and motivate voters.”

President Joe Biden delivers a speech on March 5 to mark the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. More than 600 civil rights demonstrators were beaten by white police officers as they tried to cross the bridge during a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

In the absence of some of the legal protections of the Voting Rights Act and the emergence of state laws that policy advocates say are making it harder for Black and minority groups to vote, there have been examples of high turnout among impacted communities. That has been largely credited to organizers who ensured voters knew how and when to vote. 

Tafeni English, the Alabama state director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, “There’s this civic engagement that has to continue happening” to combat voter suppression.

“It looks very dark, and it looks very bleak, but at the same time, those are opportunities — and always have been for movements — to strategize and to collectively fight this,” she told theGrio.

English, who helped lead a memorial celebration this Bloody Sunday anniversary as director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, said SPLC launched the Vote Your Voice grant program that funds grassroots organizations.

“We realized,” she explained, “that in order for us to really tackle this issue of voter suppression, we have to have people on the ground, empowering people and reminding them of their power.”

However, Myrick warned that out-organizing voter suppression is unsustainable and costly.

“A short-term, maximal effort voter turnout can get us through a cycle or two or three,” he said, “but it will wear out voters, volunteers and donors.”

On the first day of early voting in Georgia for the 2020 general election, people wait in line Oct. 12 at the C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center in Atlanta. Among new tactics decried as voter suppression is a Georgia law that prohibits giving water to people standing in line to vote. (Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Myrick continued: “This level of sustained effort to overcome a set of rules that have been rigged is not what we should expect or demand … from communities that are already underinvested in.”

He called on Congress and Biden to do everything they can to “make voting easy, accessible, safe and convenient.”

Advocates believe it will take a multi-racial, multi-generational and multi-religious coalition similar to the marchers on Bloody Sunday to win the long-term battle for voting rights.

“It is because of that intersectionality, of course, that they won,” said Myrick. “We should take that lesson from Bloody Sunday, too, as we form coalitions, making sure that our tent is wide enough.”

“The truth,” he added, “is that the majority of Americans want racial equality.”

Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, noted that a small minority of white men in power leads the political forces behind voter suppression.

“They have shown that they will tear the democracy down and allow for there to be a straw man leadership if it takes care of a minority of a certain type — white, primarily male — and stay in power over everybody else,” Campbell told theGrio. “Because at the end of the day, that’s really what’s driving a lot of this.”

“The issue around voting rights is not just a Black issue; it’s an American issue,” she added, “and we all have a role to play in that.”

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