Yesterday millions of TV viewers watched President Obama in Selma, AL give one of the most powerful speeches of his career and then join ten of thousands to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Of course the event commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” when civil activists just beginning on their march to Montgomery were attacked and beaten by Alabama State Police officers. That attack shocked the conscious of the nation and marked the turning point in the civil rights movement. Many historians point to Bloody Sunday as the prime stimulus for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
That law prohibited practices widely used in the South since the end of Reconstruction to suppress the black vote. Initially after the founding of this nation, most states limited the right to vote to white males who owned property. However, with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, federal and state governments were forbidden to deny a citizen the right to vote for reasons of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
However, after Reconstruction ended in 1877 many of the Southern states found other ways to suppress the black vote. Southern politicians passed what are now known as Jim Crow laws which implemented poll taxes and literacy tests. Often these laws contained “grandfather clauses”. The grandfather clauses allowed white voters to circumvent the laws which were aimed at preventing blacks from voting. In addition, white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts often used violence to intimidate minorities and keep them away from polling places.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to end voter suppression forever. However, faced with the reality that changing demographics are working against them and the knowledge that the majority of younger people, low wage earners, and minorities are voting primarily for Democratic candidates, Republicans politicians have responded by enacting with new age voter suppression laws. The Supreme Court with a vote of 5 to 4 in 2014 struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act which required lawmakers in states with a history of discriminating against minority voters to get federal permission before changing voting rules. Republican controlled legislatures in the Southern states previously covered by that section immediately started enforcing their modern equivalents of Jim Crow laws.
The most common of these laws requires voters to present official photographic ID’s in order to vote. While such laws appear to be reasonable on the surface as a way to prevent voter fraud, they are actually aimed at minority populations which the Republicans know are less likely to have driver’s licenses and who will find it more difficult to obtain alternate ID’s. These laws were put in place despite the fact that there is no evidence of wide spread voter fraud. The North Caroline Republican controlled legislature took to the concept a step further barring the use of university ID’s for voting purposes. They are well aware that college students are less likely to vote for Republican candidates.
Other voter suppression measures enacted in Republican controlled states and counties are both varied and widespread. In some locations the numbers of polling places were reduced in precincts known for strong Democratic voter turnouts resulting in long lines which discouraged potential voters. In some cases requests from polling stations to stay open so that all of those in line could vote were denied. Since older, long time voters are more likely to vote Republican regardless of the circumstances, many Southern states have employed other measures to discourage more casual voters. These include reducing the voting period, prohibiting same day voter registration, etc. In one Texas city, polling places were moved to make them less accessible by public transportation.
These and other tactics which have been used recently by Republicans may be more sophisticated and to some extent more defensible on the surface then the Jim Crow laws employed in the past, but they have the same objective. They were put in place by members of one political party to suppress the vote for their opponents. In a country which takes pride in our democratic form of government, can anything be less American?
So as we commemorate the bravery and perseverance of the Selma marchers who served as catalyst for great social change, let us not lose sight of the fact that their march to preserve the right to vote for all American citizens is not over. As the generation that started their walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge fifty years ago gradually fades away, younger people must fall in step and take their places.