In 1965, 600 Americans set out on foot toward Montgomery, Alabama, marching for a fairer America where all eligible citizens could register to vote and cast a ballot without fear or intimidation—and have their votes counted.
But when they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the marchers were met by state troopers, who ordered the "unlawful assembly" to disperse. As they knelt to pray, the peaceful protesters were brutally attacked by 150 troopers with billy clubs and tear gas. Fifty-eight people, including a 25-year-old John Lewis, were sent to the hospital with injuries. March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday.
In 2013, more than 15,000 citizens re-creating the march were joined by the Vice President of the United States, who crossed the bridge arm-in-arm with Congressman Lewis and many others who led the fight for voting rights. We've made a tremendous amount of progress in 48 years. But even in 2013, the fight continues.
Right now, the Supreme Court is considering challenges to the Voting Rights Act, whose 1965 passage was spurred by the resolve of the marchers at Selma. The Voting Rights Act struck down Jim Crow laws and measures intended to disenfranchise African American voters. In the years since, this historic, still-vitally necessary piece of legislation has been reauthorized four times with tremendous bipartisan support. The provision in question says that any changes in voting laws or procedures in the 16 states and jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination must be pre-cleared with the federal government—but even in 2013, it's necessary to ensure everyone who wants to cast a ballot can.
Just last year, Republican governors, state legislatures, and conservative activists passed laws making it more difficult to vote—laws that would have a significantly disproportionate impact on minorities, the very populations whose access to the ballot has been protected by the Voting Rights Act for nearly half a century. Republicans tried a variety of tactics: slashing the amount of time available for early voting, enacting photo ID laws, and voter purges. Democrats and voting rights activists challenged many of these restrictions in court, and the courts blocked many of the worst measures.
But what stood out the most in 2012 was the persistence of everyday citizens who were determined to cast their ballots. From the 300,000 Ohioans whose signatures fought back against attempts to change election rules to the 102-year-old voter in Florida who was told she'd have to wait in line for six hours to cast a ballot, the American people refused to let others trample on our rights—the rights that marchers, 48 years ago today, fought so hard for.
As President Obama said just weeks ago in his second inaugural address, "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
"It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began."
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