As this weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma March, which culminated in the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the focus was on the past in contrast with the present and future. Congressman John Lewis, who was once beaten and jailed 50 years ago while marching and fighting for civil rights and voting rights for African Americans on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, returned walking alongside of President Obama on Saturday. While some African Americans and others complain that race relations have deteriorated and not changed, they only need look to or speak with John Lewis and those individuals who 50 years ago risked their lives, endured indignities, beatings, even death, tear gas, and multiple times in jail to know that things have changed in America. We are far from a perfect union. The gap is not as wide as it was 50 years ago when it was unimaginable that a black man could become President or Attorney General. But the gap still persists.
As history and the movie Selma showed, blacks who tried to register to vote in the Jim Crow south were given impossible tests before registration such as counting jelly beans in a jar, taxed with poll taxes or flat out refused the registration form, all in contravention of the U.S. Constitution giving blacks the right to vote under the 15th Amendment in 1870 and to women in 1920 through the 19th amendment. Those who fought for the right to vote marching in Selma, didn’t ask for special treatment but equal treatment as promised a century ago, says President Obama. They fought for the treatment in the words set forth in our Declaration of Independence that:
“We the People… in order to form a more perfect union.” We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men are created equal.”
And those who marched on Bloody Sunday, 50 years ago, dared to challenge the Jim Crow system in the southern states to live up to the creed of this nation. As President Obama stated, it was “one leg in our long journey towards freedom.” Selma is not just about African Americans, it is about rights for all Americans.
The work started 50 years ago in Selma is not complete, as we all should know. Racism still persists in this country. This past week, the Department of Justice released its report on the Ferguson Police Department and the many systemic injustices perpetrated on the citizens of Ferguson in violation of their Constitutional Civil rights. The work of those in Selma 50 years ago, made it possible for Eric Holder, the first African American to lead the Department of Justice to subject Ferguson to a possible law suit or settlement. The actions of the Ferguson Police Department and that of many others across the country still violate the civil rights of African Americans and many other minorities. The difference lies in the power afforded to African Americans to address these issues through the legal process and the Justice Department. And as John Lewis and those who marched 50 years ago know, change and progress have come to America. Today there are over 40 black members of Congress, one Senator and nearly every large city in America has at some point had a black mayor. But racism has far from vanished in the U. S.
The work of Selma continues today with making the criminal justice system work fairly for all, addressing unfair sentencing, mass incarceration, improving police and community race relations, fair wage for fair work and above all ensuring voting rights. As President Obama stated on Saturday, “the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood and sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, stands weakened, its future subject to partisan rancor.” Strict voting rights laws requiring photo or other ID passed between 2008 and 2012 made it more difficult and burdensome for many minorities to vote. Yet even before the voter ID laws passed, America had one of the lowest voting rates among free people in the world. The reminder of Selma must be the continued fight for voter registration, in spite of the voter ID laws. And the fight must continue against the voter ID laws through the courts and in Congress. The work of Selma and those who died fighting for those voting rights must never be forgotten. Unfortunately, Selma is now.