Selma’s Power: An Emblem of Hope at a Critical Time for Voting Rights

By Ella Wiley

Senior Communications Associate

Each year, thousands of voting rights leaders, activists, and allies gather in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the march that played an essential role in the passage of 1965’s Voting Rights Act (VRA). 2023 marks the 58th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, during which Black civil rights activists, known as foot soldiers in their brave march for justice, were brutally beaten by law enforcement as they walked over the Edmund Pettus bridge, on a day known as Bloody Sunday.

As we do every year, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) joined dozens of partners in Selma to honor the activists’ brave and impactful legacy — and to continue to call for protecting and expanding voting rights. This commemoration and advocacy comes at a critical time. LDF is awaiting a decision in a pivotal Supreme Court redistricting case, Merrill v. Milligan, which involves a claim challenging Alabama’s discriminatory congressional map that targets Black voting power. The country is also nearing 10 years since the Supreme Court’s devastating Shelby County v. Holder decision, which significantly weakened the VRA — and, among other setbacks, made it possible for states to pass racially discriminatory maps.

Amid this moment of uncertainty and deep concern about the future of voting rights in the United States, the Selma Jubilee offered an important gathering place for the solidarity and community-building that has always undergirded the hope and determination among voting rights advocates. The weekend’s events showcased the critical function of this city in the Black voting rights movement past and present — and highlighted its status as a true emblem of the unrelenting spirit and resolve of those who strive for justice.

The March Ahead for Voting Rights

The Jubilee weekend was filled with coalition-building, celebrations to honor the foot soldiers who risked their lives for Black suffrage, and events to educate the public on Selma’s impact. On March 4, LDF led an all-star panel, moderated by MSNBC’s Joy Reid, to discuss the current state of voting rights in the context of multiple voting milestones. The panelists included LDF President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson, Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights CEO Maya Wiley, Color of Change President Rashad Robinson, Advancement Project Executive Director Judith Brown Dianis, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Executive Director of Alabama Forward and LDF client Evan Milligan, and Alabama Forward Chief Field and Campaign Strategist and LDF client Khadidah Stone.

Nelson, along with LDF’s Associate Director-Counsel Tona Boyd, opened the event by reflecting on historical importance of Selma, LDF’s long history of defending voting rights in Alabama, and the urgent need to pass federal voting rights legislation to guard against the ongoing efforts to undermine Black political power.

Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell, a Selma native, followed with remarks emphasizing the city’s pivotal role in American history. “It was the people of Selma, Alabama — ordinary Americans — who dared … to make this country understand that every American should have an equal right to vote. And, for that, we got the 1965 Voting Rights Act,” she said.

Rep. Sewell then lamented that a strategic and calculated plan to destroy the VRA has been underway for some time. “We know that the Shelby v. Holder decision is 10 years old, and we know that it gutted the most important provision … and that was preclearance. It was federal oversight,” she described, referring to the VRA’s mandate in Section 5 requiring new voting procedures in states with a history of racial discrimination be pre-cleared by the federal government before they are implemented. Shelby significantly undermined this provision by declaring the formula used for determining which jurisdictions must adhere to this preclearance requirement invalid.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D-AL 7th District) gives opening remarks at LDF's annual Selma Jubilee panel. Photo by Keecee DeVenny for LDF.

“You can’t have federal oversight if you don’t have a formula to determine which jurisdictions are the most egregious,” she continued “… And just when we thought it was bad enough … Alabama brought you another case: Merrill v. Milligan. But I am mighty afraid that this … Court will further gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Rep. Sewell reflected. Her remarks hinted at the pivotal nature of this case. The Supreme Court will not only decide on the legality of Alabama’s map, but on whether Section 2, which prohibits discriminatory voting procedures, allows for race to be used in redistricting at all — even to ensure voters of color are not being silenced.

As the panel got underway, Reid turned to Milligan and Stone, leaders in the fight for fair maps and plaintiffs in Milligan, to further explain the significance of the Supreme Court case, especially for Black voters, and reflect on whether they were hopeful their claim challenging Alabama’s discriminatory congressional map that dilutes Black voting power would succeed. “When we are being denied of that congressional district [due to a discriminatory map], we are also being denied of Black fair representation and our needs, of the Black community,” Stone explained. “It doesn’t just put our livelihood on the line, it puts our healthcare on the line, our justice on the line … our families on the line — but most of all it puts our voting power on the line when we’re denied a district such as [this one].”

Milligan detailed his family history in Alabama, noting he was six generations removed from slavery, and that the activists who raised him instilled a sense of justice and fairness he carries with him as the case’s named plaintiff. “[My father] wrote this poem called, ‘I Want to Be a Song for My People. And I felt like the hope of that can be something that would translate to his name being on the case, and that’s certainly an agency that we still work to try to build and share with people in the state as far as operating from a place of hope.”

Other panelists emphasized just how critical both Section 2 and Section 5 of the VRA are to maintaining democracy. “Isn’t it shameful,” Rep. Jackson Lee noted. “That we have not been able to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act since the Shelby case?” She went on to describe how Sections 5’s preclearance mandate was developed as a proactive tool to prevent discriminatory voting legislation, including the creation of maps that diminish Black political power. However, Section 2 is the backup plan.

“Section 2 is the lifeboat, it is the rope in the water. We are drowning,” said Rep. Jackson Lee, noting that Section 2 has historically been relied upon if Section 5 claims were ineffective. And now, due to Shelby, Section 2 is the only option for voting rights advocates and individual voters to challenge discriminatory voting legislation under the VRA.  Maintaining the full force of Section 2, which could be weakened in Milligan, is critical to ensuring that voting policies that disproportionately impact voters of color, like burdensome ID requirements, line relief bans, at-large voting, and other procedures, do not go unchecked.

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Across the Edmund Pettus Bridge: Good Trouble

The following day, on March 5, thousands gathered to march from Brown Chapel AME Church, the meeting place of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the Selma movement, to the historic Edmund Pettus bridge. At the base of the bridge, President Joe Biden, Rep. Sewell, and Selma Mayor James Perkins, Jr. addressed the crowd, honoring the original foot soldiers and similarly stressing the urgent need for renewed federal voting rights legislation.

As the sun began to set, the crowd moved forward and crossed the bridge, which sits over the Alabama River. LDF employees and clients wearing t-shirts that honored the late Rep. John Lewis — who dedicated his life to voting rights and inspired the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill to reinstate key protections in the VRA — proudly carried a banner that featured LDF Senior Counsel Deuel Ross, the lead attorney in Milligan who argued the case before the Supreme Court in October. In unison, the group sang the same songs as the foot soldiers of 1965 did when they bravely made their way across the bridge — and the ballads’ powerful titles captured the spirit of the moment: “We Shall Overcome,” “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” and “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom.”

Following the crossing, LDF Senior Policy Counsel Jared Evans, one the organization’s Selma planning committee leaders, reflected on the importance of the Selma Jubilee amid the context of the pending Milligan decision and the Shelby anniversary in an interview with LDF. “2023 marks 10 years since the Shelby decision that gutted the VRA and changed the landscape of voting rights for minorities. Selma is the birthplace of Black voting rights and returning to the bridge means more this year because the Supreme Court is weighing the fate of not just Black voters in Alabama and Louisiana, but Black voters nationwide,” he stressed. “The right to vote is under greater threat now than at any point since the Jim Crow era, not just in traditional voting practices like attacks on early voting, vote-by-mail, and drop boxes, but on the actual political lines that determine who gets elected. Returning to Selma symbolizes our respect for the foot soldiers and everything that they sacrificed, but also our hope and determination for a better future.”

“When we are being denied of that congressional district, we are also being denied of Black fair representation and our needs of the Black community. It doesn’t just put our livelihood on the line, it puts our healthcare on the line, our justice on the line… our families on the line — but most of all it puts our voting power on the line when we’re denied a district such as [this one].”

- Khadidah Stone, Plaintiff in Merrill v. milligan

Celebrating Selma in the Current Moment

As the country nears a decade since Shelby and awaits a decision in Milligan, it is clearer than ever that the obstacles the foot soldiers faced in 1965 are still with us. However, the sheer determination shown by the Milligan plaintiffs, members of Congress dedicated to renewing the VRA by passing federal voting rights protections, and the civil rights community shakes off any doubt that this fight is over.

“If we think about the issue of police violence, the Selma March came on the heels of the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson,” said Nelson. “There was already the voting rights movement, but it was the police killing of a 26-year-old Black man that spawned this march that took us over the bridge and took us into a new era of democracy. So, these issues that were with us 58 years ago are still with us today.”

58 years and the call for the fulfillment of this country’s promise of equality has only gotten stronger. No matter the Supreme Court’s ruling in Milligan, LDF and its partners will be on the frontlines until every vote matters and every voice is heard.

Published: March 10, 2023

March 4, 2023

At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, 58 years later

All photos by Melissa Golden for LDF