The Legacy of "Bloody Sunday" in #Selma, Gutting the Voting Rights Act, and a Clip from "Eyes on the Prize"
On March 7, 1965, six hundred American citizens left Selma, Alabama, on a peaceful march to the state's capitol in Montgomery in support of African-American voting rights. Within a few blocks they were attacked by police who used billy clubs and tear gas to turn them back. The incident was captured on live TV by ABC news, which interrupted its scheduled programming to show the rest of America what was happening in the sovereign state of Alabama. And the nation was appalled.
It took another two weeks and two more tries before the marchers were able to complete the 54-mile trek to the state capitol. But instead of the original six hundred marchers, there were now 25 thousand supported by a federal court order and led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Last year, in its review of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, an ideologically divided Supreme Court invalidated the heart of the legislative victory that began on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. In that decision, nine states with a history of discrimination were released from the requirement to seek federal approval before making any changes to their election laws. Basically, the court was saying that there had been oversight enough in the past almost-five decades and no more was needed. The New York Times article on the court's decision can be found here.
Only time will tell if the court's optimism was justified. Has there been enough social rehabilitation in the Deep South to warrant the removal of federal oversight? I look at our country's enormous progress in the areas of social justice and civil rights and would like to think so. But I also look at news reports about Trayvon Martin and the shooting of another black youth for playing loud music. I see racist comments on YouTube, in social media and elsewhere on the Internet, and I wonder if the fox would feel less constrained to attack the chicken coop if he knew the farmer was no longer standing by with a shotgun.
While researching my novel series, I learned that black disenfranchisement was a key goal of white Americans in the post-civil-war South. There was good reason for them to feel this way. Recently freed slaves sometimes "sold" their votes or were too easily convinced to cast ballots for disreputable characters whose interests bore little resemblance to the public good. The abuses of Reconstruction set the stage for literacy tests, property requirements, and the outright intimidation of any African-American who wanted to vote.
It took the Civil Rights Movement to change all that. The question now is whether we have changed enough as a country, especially in the nine states where abuses were most egregious, to render federal protection unnecessary. Five conservative justices on the Supreme Court believe we have. I'm not a historian, but I remember school studies about what happened when federal troops pulled out of the South at the end of Reconstruction. Will history repeat itself? Should we be concerned that voter ID laws like the one recently enacted in Texas will become a 21st-century variant of black disenfranchisement? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, I think we owe it to ourselves as a nation to remember Nick Carraway at the end of The Great Gatsby. After witnessing the events that led to the demise of his friend, he wanted the world to stand at "moral attention" forever. In another time, he might have called it mindfulness. Whatever we decide to call it, wouldn't it be nice if we did not have to be shocked into right thinking by a live broadcast, as we were on this day in 1965, when evidence of human nature's lower impulses forced us to stand up and say who we really are.
What follows here is a six-and-a-half minute video clip from the award-winning documentary, Eyes on the Prize, which shows what happened on this day 49 years ago. A young John Lewis and Hosea Williams led the march, and the rest, as we all know, is history.
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