Nevadans across the Silver State this week have been caucusing to show early support for presidential candidates, exercising their unalienable right to participate in the fragile institution of democratic elections. The right to vote, for some, however, has been and continues to be a hard fought battle that has waged in this country since the mid nineteenth century. Since long before the Civil War, from the era of the early Democratic Republic, to the days of Frederick Douglass, continuing to today with states’ passage of laws that democratize the vote for white men while disenfranchising black Americans, black men and women have appealed to legislatures, seeking to be recognized as legitimate and equal voters.
Disenfranchisement has continuously placed blockades between black people and the vote since the late eighteen hundreds, infringing on the constitutionally enshrined guarantees of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. A survey from The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute shows that black and Hispanic citizens are more likely than whites to face barriers at the polls, and multiple academic studies and court rulings indicate that racially biased election tampering through legislation, such as voter-ID legislation, voter roll purging, gerrymandering, and restricted polling places in districts of color, is evidence of deep structural obstacles to the ballot for black and Latino voters.
One hundred and fifty years after the Fifteenth Amendment was enacted; one hundred years since the nineteenth amendment became doctrine, black men and women across America still struggle to gain equal representation or the same guarantees to vote, even with the Voting Rights Act being signed into law fifty-five years ago in 1965.
In the History of African-Americans and the vote, March 25,1965, is a milestone, and as Martin Luther King said on that day, “There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.” A five day, fifty-four mile march from Selma, Alabama to the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery demonstrated to the United States and to the world, that black Americans who had been campaigning for equal rights, civil liberties and the right to vote for a century, in spite of Jim Crow laws and legalized discrimination, would continue to pursue their rights, vowing they shall overcome.
1965 Selma was rife with police brutality against non-violent demonstrators and community members attempting to register African Americas to vote. Their efforts were met with mass arrests, violent attacks, and on the night of February 18th, an Alabama state trooper joined local police breaking up an evening march in Marion, shooting and ultimately killing an unarmed black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon, who was attempting to shield his mother from the trooper’s nightstick.
In response to Jackson’s death, activists in Selma and Marion set out to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader, Hosea Williams and Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader, John Lewis shepherded the march. Making their way through Selma, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the crowd faced a barricade of state troopers and police, ordering the marchers to disperse. When they did not, the law enforcement officers attacked the crowd, on horseback, with clubs and tear gas, chasing retreating marchers and beating them. Known as “Bloody Sunday,” the attacks on nonviolent marchers triggered national outrage. Lewis, who was severely beaten, said: “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma”.
In a public statement, President Johnson addressed the nation asying, “Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote”.
On March 15th Johnson addressed Congress, identifying himself with the demonstrators in Selma in a televised address: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome”. Two days later, Johnson submitted voting rights legislation to Congress.
On March 21st, protected by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the demonstrators began heading from Selma to Montgomery, covering between 7 to 17 miles per day, resting and sleeping in supporters’ yards. Although the march was to be restricted to 300 marchers, the number of demonstrators grew over the course of the peaceful demonstration to 25,000.
Once the marchers reached Montgomery, King raised his voice to the crowd, “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man”. Despite the sentiment and the absence of violence during the five day venture across Alabama, four members of the Klu klux Klan murdered Viola Liuzzo, a housewife from Michigan, who had come to Alabama to volunteer. Three of the men were later prosecuted.
On August 6, 1965, President Johnson, sharing the moment with Reverend King and other civil rights leaders, signed the Voting Rights Act. Regretting “the outrage of Selma,” Johnson called the right to vote “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men”.
The march from Selma to Montgomery will live in history as an indelible moment in America’s constant pursuit of a wholly realized dream that strives for the truest expressions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights which promises more than our country has yet to manifest. This February’s celebration of Black History Month calls on all Americans to remember the right to be equal and free has been hard fought. That fight still continues, and until everyone has the right to vote, vote for those who will ensure our country reaches the mountain top where all are created equal.