The Road to the VRA: Bloody Sunday

On March 8, 1965, John Lewis and Hosea Williams, one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s aides, led the march that would become known as “Bloody Sunday.” As the group of 525 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by 200 Alabama State Troopers and possemen. When they were 50 yards away a trooper came over the loudspeaker and addressed the crowd: “This is an unlawful assembly. Your march is not conducive to the public safety. You are ordered to disperse and go back to your church or to your homes.”

Williams responded, “May we have a word with the mayor?”

The trooper replied, “There is no word to be had.” The group was given a two-minute warning, but the troopers were ordered to advance on them after only a minute had passed.  

A United Press International reporter gave his account of the violence that continued even after the marchers retreated: 

“The troopers and posseman, under Gov. George C. Wallace’s orders to stop the Negroes’ ‘Walk for Freedom’ from Selma to Montgomery, chased the screaming, bleeding marchers nearly a mile back to their church, clubbing them as they ran. Ambulances screamed in relays between Good Samaritan Hospital and Brown’s Chapel Church, carrying hysterical men, women and children suffering head wounds and tear gas burns.” 

Marchers eventually retaliated throwing bricks and bottles until the troopers were momentarily called back, and the marchers were allowed to enter the church. 

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The media played an important role in the movement. As the troopers and Clark’s posse violently attacked the peaceful marchers, ABC television broadcast the gruesome scenes from Selma. The network presented a powerful metaphor to the nation when they interrupted a documentary about Nazi war crimes to show the violent scene that was unfolding in Selma. In newspapers and on television screens across the country, the images of the peaceful marchers stood in stark contrast to the brutal, violent police, and left an indelible mark on the nation. Public support for the movement swelled. Public opinion polls showed that except in the South, the nation sided with the marchers. During the first 48 hours after “Bloody Sunday,” there were demonstrations in more than 80 cities to protest the brutality, and urge the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The next day, Dr. King sent a request to Federal District Judge Frank Johnson for a federal injunction barring state interference in the march from Selma-to-Montgomery; however, Judge Johnson would not grant an injunction without a trial, so the march would have to wait. On March 9, Dr. King led a group to the Pettus Bridge where they knelt, prayed and sang “We Shall Overcome.” 

As the hearing was taking place, Governor Wallace went to Washington D.C. to urge President Johnson to stop the march. President Johnson refused. He was appalled by the brutality of “Bloody Sunday” and sent an important message to the American people:

The Voting Rights Act that so many had put their lives on the line for was finally passed that summer.

56 Years Later: The Fight Continues

Half a century after demonstrators were beaten and bloodied by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court struck a devastating blow to voting rights in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, which dismantled the protections that so many had risked their lives for. Section 5, the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), required jurisdictions with histories of racially discriminatory voting practices to submit any future proposed changes to the U.S. Department of Justice or a Washington, D.C. federal court for approval. This “preclearance” was a critical measure to protect communities of color against voter intimidation and suppression. Section 4(b) of the VRA included the criteria for Congress to determine which jurisdictions are “covered,” and required to obtain preclearance. States covered under Section 4(b) had the most notorious histories of racial discrimination and suppression in voting. 

In Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, and the coverage requirements were out of date and no longer applicable to current voting conditions. The suspension of preclearance left states free to pursue potentially discriminatory changes to their voting systems with no oversight, and left voters essentially powerless to mount legal challenges against them. Thousands of voting changes are considered every year, but the Shelby County decision leaves voters of color without advance notice of discriminatory changes.

Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Riding in on the coattails of the Shelby v. Hunter decision, then-President Trump peddled baseless claims that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election. That July, LDF filed a federal lawsuit against his sham Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, alleging it was created in order to discriminate against voters of color in violation of the constitution. Mr. Trump spent the next four years spewing false narratives of voter fraud that targeted voters of color, and riling up his base around the myth of a stolen election. His countless lies and racist rhetoric set the stage for mass challenges, voter suppression efforts, and the 62 baseless lawsuits filed during the 2020 election. Mr. Trump’s actions culminated in the attempted coup at the nation’s capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when his white supremacist supporters tried to overturn the results of the election.

The 2020 election exposed the insidious voter suppression that still plagues our electoral system. Black and Latinx voters saw polling places shuttered in their communities. Thousands of names were purged from the voter rolls. Counties implemented few measures to protect voters from COVID-19. In perhaps the most egregious suppression effort, President Trump and his legal team pushed to throw out the ballots of Black voters in Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, with meritless claims of voter fraud. The nation watched this tragedy unfold as leaders spewed conspiracy theories and filed baseless lawsuits in an effort to disenfranchise Black and Brown voters. In response, LDF filed a federal lawsuit against Mr. Trump, his campaign, and the Republican National Committee, for their efforts to pressure local and state officials into discarding votes in communities of color and overturn the election.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Fifteenth Amendment, Section 1

As Georgia became a battleground state in the 2020 presidential election, state and county officials tightened their grip ahead of the January 5 U.S. Senate runoff election. After Cobb County announced plans to shutter more than half of the early voting sites before the runoff election, LDF responded swiftly and sent a letter urging officials to keep polling places open. The proposed closures were primarily in communities of color, and would have drastically restricted access to early voting. At the urging of LDF and a coalition of civil rights organizations, Cobb County changed course and kept early voting sites open.

Black voters defied the system of voter suppression designed to disenfranchise them and cast ballots in record numbers. While this election exposed enduring, systemic voter suppression, the fight to dismantle barriers to the ballot box has grown even stronger. The millions of Black voters who cast ballots prove we are stronger than the efforts to suppress us. This is a testament to the organizers, activists, and civil rights lawyers fighting voter suppression from all angles. 

Georgia, the birthplace of the “Southern Strategy,” gave rise to a new, powerful movement, and made history by electing Rev. Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black senator, and Jon Ossoff, its first Jewish senator. Black women organizers have been leading the fight for Black political participation, and the record voter turnout was a product of their tenacity and tireless efforts to expand access to the ballot box.

#BlackWomenLead

For generations, Black women have been integral parts of the movement for voting rights. Often overlooked, since the women’s suffrage movement, Black women have protested, organized, and even laid their lives on the line to secure voting rights for Black Americans. 

"Sometimes it seem like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed. But if I fall, I'll fall five feet four inches forward in the fight for freedom. I'm not backing off."

Fannie Lou Hamer

Born to sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, Fannie Lou Hamer was an organizing force for voting rights during the Civil Rights Movement. 

"When we show up, act boldly, and practice the best ways to be wrong, we fail forward. No matter where we end up, we've grown from where we began."

Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams, the founder of Fair Fight, helped organize and register a record amount of Georgia voters for the 2020 general election and ensuing 2021 runoff election, and fought voter suppression schemes targeting Black communities.

"We who believe in freedom cannot rest."

Ella Baker

Remembered as one of the most effective organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, Ella Baker played influential roles in the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

"We wanted to affirm what we can do when we show up together, and to show that we are not a one-night stand organization. We ain’t going nowhere."

LaTosha Brown

The founder of Black Voters Matter, LaTosha Brown demonstrated just how effective on-the-ground organizing and advocacy can be during the 2020 general election and the ensuing 2021 Georgia runoff election.

"Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders."

Diane Nash

A brilliant strategist, Diane Nash worked with Dr. King, SCLC, and SNCC to organize the Selma March, which would eventually lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Our challenge and our call is to protect democracy, a major pillar of which is to ensure equitable access to voting. We need a system where we are ensured fairness, accuracy and transparency every time a ballot is cast. We need a system where voting is open and protected for all.”

Nsè Ufot

Chief Executive Officer of the New Georgia Project, Nsè Ufot has registered a staggering amount of voters, and utilized technology in innovative ways to bring underrepresented people into the political process. 

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