On Sunday, I marched the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On the other side, there were columns of Alabama State Troopers lining Highway 80. It could not have been 1965; nearly all of the troopers were African American.
Not far ahead of me was Congressman John Lewis, who, along with Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and other iconic leaders of the civil rights movement, marched from Selma toward Montgomery on March 7, 47 years ago. But most of us marching, then and now, were ordinary citizens. In 1965, there were 600 Americans who may never become household names, but who marched that day for a fairer America—an America where all eligible citizens could safely register to vote, cast a ballot, and have their votes counted just like anyone else.
The 1965 march began peacefully, but that quickly changed. Arriving at the Alabama River, the demonstrators could see police officers and other men (who had been "deputized") waiting for them across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We know the rest of this story: The marchers were attacked with billy clubs and tear gas; their peaceful protest for voting rights was met with state-sanctioned violence. The brutality was so severe, the attack so bloodied, that the day has become known as "Bloody Sunday."
The resolve of the marchers at Selma led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that same year. The marchers, and all brothers and sisters in the civil rights movement, sacrificed so that future generations of all Americans could not only enjoy the right to vote but also all the protections that come from political representation in a real democracy.
Today, we risk turning that progress on its head, as an organized effort to dilute voting rights takes root across the country. New laws could ensure that eligible voters across the country will not be able to exert electoral influence on our nation’s politics.
In 2008, we witnessed the turnout of the largest and most diverse electorate in American history—reinforcing the basic values that make this country great. Since his election, President Obama has worked to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to succeed by focusing on issues that most significantly affect people’s lives: investing in job training and education reforms, expanding access to affordable health care—especially for children—and cracking down on credit card and mortgage abuses by the biggest banks.
These changes directly benefit American families, but the GOP has opposed them at every opportunity. Last year, rather than propose new ideas of their own, Republicans led an assault on the right to vote with an onslaught of changes to the way we vote. Legislatures in Alabama and 16 other states passed bills that, among other restrictions, cut early voting, severely limit voter registration drives, and turn aside voters who cannot produce government-issued photo identification at the polling place.
Alabama is among those states that passed a photo ID mandate without any meaningful alternative for those unable to produce the precise form of identification required. Nationally, the Brennan Center for Justice has found that 11 percent of all eligible Americans lack the identification photo ID bills require. And not all groups enjoy the same access to photo IDs.
The new movement to restrict voting is not limited to photo ID mandates. Last year, Florida Republicans hid several provisions in an omnibus elections bill that unmistakably burden Americans with limited economic means. The new rules impose not only excessive restrictions on voter registration drives but cut the final Sunday of early voting—the most popular day for first-time voters to cast ballots early.
But once again, ordinary Americans are standing up to protect their voting rights. Late last year, a grassroots coalition in Ohio gathered more than 300,000 signatures to suspend a retrogressive elections bill. In Florida, the League of Women Voters challenged the new restrictions before a federal judge, stating that the new rules were so demanding that they could no longer register voters in the state.
These laws will block the vote for far too many eligible voters, some of whom have been voting since before the Selma march. With this new generation of voting restrictions, we dishonor the legacy of the marchers at Selma. In the past, ordinary people, showing extraordinary courage, achieved the right to vote for all Americans. Now is the time to honor their sacrifices with a movement to protect voting all our own. Now is the time for us to summon just a fraction of that courage, and show that the determination of a few ordinary Americans can make all the difference.