It happened on March 7, 1965. That was the date of “Bloody Sunday,” the fateful day when peaceful protesters who were trying to march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery were severely beaten by local and state police. They were marching primarily for voting rights.
I am embarrassed to say that I was so absorbed in my own activities that I don’t really remember hearing about that terrible day at the time. But because of what seems to be a very questionable move in the U.S. Supreme Court, I have learned about the events in and around Selma in 3/65 from the news this past week.
For example, the cover story on the front page of last Thursday’s USA Today was “A Crack in Civil Rights Law?” The crack referred to is conservative justices questioning Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that was first enacted in August 1965, five months after Bloody Sunday.
A similar article in the 2/27 New York Times reports how Justice Scalia, the court’s senior member, referred to the provisions of the VRA being a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” I have never been a “fan” of Justice Scalia, but to call a bill which seeks to safeguard voting rights of all Americans a “racial entitlement” seems particularly asinine to me.
One of the people who suffered serious injury on Bloody Sunday was John Lewis (b. 1940 in Alabama). Lewis, who has been the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district since 1987, was interviewed by Richard Wolf for the 2/28 issue of USA Today.
Wolf wrote that Lewis, who “has been marching for voting rights for more than half a century,” declares that that is not long enough “for the Supreme Court to decide that the finish line has been reached.” It is not long enough because of lingering impediments to equal voting rights for some American citizens, especially people of color.
Lewis, who was the student body of American Baptist Theological Seminary (in Nashville, now known as American Baptist College) in 1961, the year of his graduation, was arrested 40 times from 1960 to 1966. He still bears the scar on his head from being billy clubbed on Bloody Sunday, a blow so strong he might well have died from it.
|John Lewis being billy clubbed on March 7, 1965|
Eight days later, on March 15, 1965, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, calling for voter rights legislation. In that speech, he proclaimed, “We shall overcome!” (That bold statement reportedly touched Martin Luther King, Jr., so deeply that he wept.) In August, then, the Voter Registration Act was approved by Congress and signed by the President.
Four times since then, the VRA has been re-affirmed by Congress—in 1970, 1975, 1982, and again in 2006, when the Senate voted 98-0 in favor of it. But now Shelby Co. v. Holder is calling the constitutionality of the VRA into question, and at least four of the SCOTUS Justices seem to be in favor of declaring it unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, the initial zeal for voting rights of the Selma marchers, and the disgraceful activities of the Alabama law enforcement officers, is not being forgotten. On March 3, Vice-President Biden traveled to Selma to mark the 48th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. (See a CBS News link here.)
In The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America (2012), American historian James T. Patterson writes that Bloody Sunday is “a pivotal date in the history of the civil rights movement” (p. 80). Let’s hope and pray that the SCOTUS won’t gut the VRA and endanger the gains in voter rights made in the past 48 years.