We wrote last month about the events relating to Bloody Sunday. Now that the events commemorating that fateful day and its consequences have passed, I will reflect on the effect that remembering Bloody Sunday will have on America. March 7, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, and once again the eyes of the world were on Selma, Ala. As the first African-American President of the United States, Barack Obama, stood at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it was impossible not to wonder just how far we have actually come, and how much work is left to do. The scars of Bloody Sunday – and the legacy of slavery in America – are still painfully obvious today. Hopefully and prayerfully, most of us believe it’s time to move forward and not drift backward. I believe we in America are at a crossroads and must decide what path we should take.
It is always good to reflect back on past events, to learn from them and then move forward in a positive manner. On March 7, 1965, what had been planned as a peaceful protest to call for voting rights for African Americans was marred by violence. In Selma, Rev. Hosea Williams and young John Lewis were prepared to lead 600 people toward Montgomery, Ala., where they would gather at the steps of the State Capitol building. When the marchers had barely reached the edge of town, they were met at the Edmund Pettus Bridge with violent resistance by Alabama State Troopers and Sheriff’s deputies. The event came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” and the eyes of the nation were drawn to the struggle for civil rights.
Now a member of Congress, John Lewis, who was beaten as he attempted to cross the bridge, was destined to play a major role in the civil rights movement. Rep. Lewis, a native of Pike County, Ala., had the high honor of introducing President Obama as a crowd of 40,000 people gathered for the anniversary event in Selma. He had this to say:
If someone had told me when we were crossing this bridge that one day I would be back here introducing the first African-American president, I would have said you’re crazy.
But even as Rep. Lewis and President Obama noted the progress that has been made in the 50 years since Bloody Sunday, the occasion fell under the shadow of a particularly turbulent period of racial discord in America. Recent events in various parts of the country underscore the feelings that the ground is not yet level in America. In his remarks, President Obama addressed the still-festering racial conflict by saying:
We just need to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over; we know the race is not yet won. We know reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.
Perhaps even more poignant, on a day commemorating a literal battle for freedom and equality, is remembering the fact that the Voting Rights Act – the very legislation people bled and died for – was cut to the bone by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. In a move described as “cutting the heart out” of the law, the Court declared key sections unconstitutional in a 5-4 vote split along ideological lines.
Established in 1965, the Voting Rights Act restated the rights guaranteed to black Americans in the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870. Many states had tried to circumvent the law by establishing discriminatory practices such as requiring literacy and “character” tests for black voters. The Voting Rights Act included strong federal oversight of elections in states and cities with a history of disenfranchising black voters. It has long been considered the most successful civil rights law ever passed. I believe it’s one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress.
Poll taxes, literacy requirements, and voter ID laws are tactics that have been used to restrict voting rights, particularly among certain populations. This is exactly the opposite of what we in this country should be trying to do. We should be expanding access to voting for every American Citizen. We should encourage our citizens to vote and certainly should not be making it much harder to vote. Congress has an obligation to do whatever necessary to encourage voting and protect the right of every citizen to vote. That’s the American way and nobody should dispute it.
True equality and justice for all will only come when everyone gets involved, and when everyone understands the importance of their freedoms, and the critical importance of protecting them. As President Obama noted in his remarks while in Selma:
What’s our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?
How great would it be if the lasting legacy of Bloody Sunday wasn’t violence, or division, or discord, but instead a fervent passion for ensuring the opportunity for a bright future, for people from every walk of life. We all have a moral obligation to make the lasting effect of the celebration of Bloody Sunday a positive one for America. Our future as a nation depends on us taking the right path. My prayer is that we do so and very soon!
Sources: NPR, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, thegrio.com
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