Last weekend marked the 51st Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” — the attempted Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march that began on the Edmund Pettus bridge, was thwarted by brutal state violence, and was later resumed, leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). On that infamous Sunday of March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers brutally assaulted 600 unarmed men, women and children, who had peacefully assembled to draw national attention to their right to participate equally in the political process.
The violent assault on the bridge was broadcast on national television, interrupting the Sunday TV movie Judgment at Nuremberg — a movie about one of the ultimate consequences of racial prejudice. That it took such searing images of ruthless violence to herald the need for change is a national disgrace. The resulting legislation, however, provided some redemption by further propelling the civil rights movement and, ultimately, bringing the nation closer to its ideals of democracy.
Leading up to the passage of the VRA, the country had been fractured and ambivalent around the vital issue of voting rights for all. “Bloody Sunday” illustrated for America — and the world — the chaos that would ensue without the needed protections of federal voting rights legislation: scenes of mayhem, clouds of riot gas, and a sea of American citizens fleeing and injured.
The politically inclusive effect of the VRA was significant. In 1965, when the VRA was first passed, there were only five black elected officials in Congress and less than 1,400 black elected officials nationwide. By the end of the 1970s, the total number of black elected officials nationwide had more than doubled to nearly 5,000. And, by the 1990s, black elected officials were experiencing record successes throughout the country, ending the decade at nearly 10,000 in number. Now, there are more than 10,000 black elected officials.
Yet, despite the transformative impact of the VRA over the past five decades, this year’s “Blood Sunday” occurs against the backdrop of the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the VRA. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the heart of the VRA — Section 5 — in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, which LDF litigated. For nearly 50 years, Section 5 required certain jurisdictions, like Alabama, with a history of racial discrimination in voting, to preclear all voting changes with the federal government before their implementation to ensure that those voting changes did not harm Black and other minority communities. The Court in Shelby held the animating provision of Section 5 unconstitutional.
As a result of the Court’s decision, countless election laws have since been passed requiring everything from photo IDs to proof of citizenship for voters to exercise their constitutional right to cast their ballots. We witnessed this during Super Tuesday 2016, when many voters in states, such as Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, faced new impediments to voting imposed by strict and discriminatory election laws.
To fight these attempts at voter suppression, LDF is currently litigating two VRA cases, one in Alabama — Greater Birmingham Ministries v. Alabama — and the other in Texas — Veasey v. Perry — states that have implemented blatantly discriminatory voting laws and have histories of past voter discrimination.
To see how LDF fought for voters’ rights during the firestorm surrounding “Bloody Sunday,” see the civil action below, which requested a preliminary injunction against Governor George Wallace’s attempt to restrain the Selma marches in Alabama:
LDF also continues to fight for voting rights in the wake of Shelby, monitoring voting laws in numerous U.S. localities and states, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia. Moreover, LDF has challenged — and advocated for ending — discriminatory photo ID laws and voucher tests, and has urged the maintenance of early voting opportunities and polling places. Additionally, LDF attorneys have enlisted community members in affected states to be local “eyes and ears” to suspect changes to voting laws.
Because of the sacrifice made by the foot soldiers on the bridge 51 years ago and the tremendous advances we have made toward full democratic participation, we cannot afford to regress. We must instead strengthen the civil rights movement’s crown jewel legislation by holding a hearing on, and ultimately, passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), which seeks to undue the damage of the Shelby County decision and provide important protections against discrimination in voting.
For more information about the VRAA, read here.
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.