March 14, 2013

 

By Thandisizwe Chimurenga

LAWT Contributing Writer

 

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior on Mar. 11, 2013, acknowledging its symbolism which “… contributed to the introduction and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, considered to be the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by the US Congress.”  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis made the announcement as the U.S. Supreme Court continues its deliberations in the case of Shelby [County, Alabama] v. [Eric] Holder, where a county in Alabama wants the court to rule that Section 5 of the Act is unnecessary and therefore, obsolete.

Section 5 of the Act requires that, prior to any elections, certain states, counties, parishes, etc., must submit proposed changes to their voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or the Federal District Court in Washington, DC.  Changing the locations of polling places or the hours that the polls will be open are two examples of the kinds of proposed changes that the counties and other jurisdictions would have to submit to the Justice Department or the Court. Known as “preclearance,” the procedure is to insure that the proposed changes will not violate the constitutional rights of any group of people to participate in free and fair elections.

At the time the Act was signed into law, preclearance focused on the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and 40 counties in North Carolina. Later, in 1975, the states of Texas, Arizona, and Alaska were added to protect persons who were considered members of “minority language groups.”

The historic landmark designation of the Pettus Bridge also occurred just days after the culmination of activities marking the 48th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the incident that occurred at the bridge that led President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law in August of that year.

During the height of organizing around African American access to the ballot in Alabama, Alabama State Troopers attacked a peaceful civil rights demonstration on the evening of Feb. 18, 1965, that was being held in Marion in the southwestern portion of the state.  The troopers began beating and chasing the attendees when one young man named Jimmie Lee Jackson attempted to shield his mother and grandfather from the swings of a state trooper’s baton.  Jackson was shot at point blank range by another trooper and died eight days later.  Activists, including workers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, were galvanized to confront the state over Jackson’s murder and the numerous legal and extra legal attempts to keep Black people from voting.  A decision was made to march from Selma, a few miles South of Marion, to the state capitol in Montgomery.  In order to get to Montgomery, marchers would have to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was initially in favor of the march but at the last moment, declined to endorse it, opting to wait for signs from Johnson that the federal government would do something to acknowledge and safeguard the voting rights of African Americans.  The march was held anyway, on Mar. 7, 1965, with dozens of activists walking across the bridge that would take them over the Alabama River on their way to Montgomery.

At the foot of the bridge leading into Montgomery, state troopers blocked the marchers, ordering them to turn around and return to Selma.  Though unarmed and peaceful, the marchers refused to retreat.  The order was given to disperse the crowd and troopers, some on horseback, began beating the marchers with batons and chasing them back across the bridge into Selma.  Future United States Congressman John Lewis was among the many marchers attacked that day suffering a severe head wound. And thus “Bloody Sunday,” as Mar. 7 came to be known, graphically visualized the lengths that white racism would go to keep African Americans from seeking to vote in the State of Alabama.

The Selma-to-Montgomery March is commemorated every year in Alabama by activists who once again cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge and head towards the state capitol.  In light of the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case of Shelby v. Holder, civil rights attorney and co-founder of the annual commemoration Rose Sanders stated that this year’s activities were more than a commemoration; they were a protest march against the efforts of Alabama to repeal the Voting Rights Act.  “The act is under attack,” said Sanders. 

According to Sanders hundreds of marchers from eight of the states covered in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 participated as the march retraced the route into downtown Montgomery to the state capitol.  Sanders said that a protest was necessary because of the current climate in the country. 

“Especially after [President] Obama was elected, there was an increase in attacks on Black voting rights … history is repeating itself.  This attack on the Voting Rights Act is a carefully designed effort to take us back; it’s happened before.  The right [of Blacks] to vote was restored in 1965 after white terror had been unleashed [following the ratification of the] 15th amendment back in the late 1800s.  They find ways to circumvent that gain, to maintain the white status quo … the election of a Black president, to the average Southerner was intolerable; goes against everything that white supremacy has taught them.  It’s in blatant conflict with that principle,” said Sanders.

Francis Fox Piven’s 2008 work Keeping Down the Black Vote: Race and the Demobilization of American Voters, states that although women, immigrants, Jews, laborers and the poor have all had efforts directed towards restricting their right to vote, “The struggle of Black Americans to win the right to vote – not merely in law, but in reality – has been the most difficult.”  Sanders says that the election of a Black president was the catalyst for what she calls “the Tea Baggers and the Wrong Wing movement (“not the ‘right wing’ “) to unleash a plethora of voting suppression laws and “attacks on immigrants and labor/unions, every institution that supports progressives and progressive elections.”

The crux of the Shelby County (Alabama) argument is that, when Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006, this time for 25 more years, the nation’s legislative body “overstepped its constitutional bounds.”  Forcing the counties – and in effect the states – to submit to preclearance interferes with the rights of the various states to be “sovereign,” which is a long-running conflict between most Southern states and the federal government. 

Lawyers for Shelby County argued before the Supreme Court that, if there were any attempts to interfere with and infringe upon the rights of African Americans and others to participate in elections, that interference was “scattered” and “limited,” and therefore, a measure as harsh as “preclearance” was unnecessary. 

While the Supreme Court’s ruling on the matter is not expected for several months, Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the Court’s conservative members, wondered whether the law was being continually renewed because it was actually needed or because it was viewed as a racial entitlement that Congress was afraid to do away with.  His remarks, uttered on the same day as Pres. Obama unveiled a statue of Civil Rights organizer Rosa Parks in the United States Capitol Building, were seen as offensive to many.  South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-highest ranking Democrat in Congress and a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told the Huffington Post that Scalia’s remarks were “rooted in the fact that he is ‘white and proud.’ ”

Monica Simpson is not buying Shelby County’s argument.  Simpson is the Executive Director of SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective.  The Southern-based, national reproductive rights organization has scheduled a webinar for Mar. 28 as part of the current dialogue about the importance of the Voting Rights Act and in particular, how Section 5’s protections affect the rights of women.

“SisterSong became invested in discussing voter disenfranchisement after we experienced what we felt was a loss in Mississippi in 2011 when the personhood bill was defeated,” said Simpson. “That bill would have declared a fertilized egg a ‘person;’ it would have outlawed most contraception and in vitro fertilization, and it would have criminalized abortion, even in cases of rape and incest.  And yet the Voter ID Initiative requiring government-issued identification in order to vote passed.  It was a voter exclusion measure and a direct threat to the Voting Rights Act and it passed.”

Simpson says that while the voting rate of women of color in the U.S. has been increasing, the rights of women have remained steadily under attack with various state-based legislation efforts to restrict women’s reproductive rights.

“The decisions made around Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act will not only impact Black people, but all people of color – and especially women,” Simpson notes.

“With the fight for Medicaid expansion in the South, anti-abortion legislation popping up in record numbers, and the forced closure of most of the country’s abortion clinics, we need to make sure that every woman has the right to vote and is aware of the how important it is to vote for individuals that are committed to securing women’s rights.”

Category: News

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