Committed to the Fight for Justice: CFYJ’s Journey to Montgomery and Selma
By Rachel Kenderdine, CFYJ Operations and Development Manager
This is the second of a two part series.
During CFYJ’s recent trip to Alabama, we made the drive to Selma, where on March 7, 1965, voting rights activists, peacefully attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery, were stopped and beaten by police just across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The horrific incident became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The activists were forced to turn back and flee for their lives, but national outrage sparked by the injustice of Bloody Sunday allowed civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and now-Representative John Lewis (D-GA), to complete the march two weeks later with federal protections granted by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery March--and the leadership of activists like Dr. King and John Lewis--also gave President Johnson the push he needed work with Congress to pass and sign federal legislation to protect the voting rights of African Americans. Though guaranteed by the 15th Amendment, African Americans across the South were prevented from registering to vote by local laws enforcing literacy tests or other means to keep blacks from accessing their voting rights.
While in Selma, we stopped at the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail museum to gather context about the marches, and then were able to walk across the Edmund Pettus bridge. It was an awe-inspiring experience to walk in the footsteps of the great leaders of the civil rights movement, who created so much change with their passion for justice; and to imagine what they felt when walking across that very bridge on those Sundays in March. CFYJ’s visit to Selma was also significant because it took place close to the anniversaries of both the Voting Rights Act (VRA), signed into law on August 6, 1953, and the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, which decided 5 years ago this summer and struck down a core provision of the the VRA.
Though it is difficult to realize that we live in a country where African Americans were not guaranteed the right to vote until only 53 years ago this week, it is important to recognize that the fight initiated by voting and civil rights activists in the 1950’s and 1960’s is not over. The VRA allowed federal intervention in areas where the voting rights of African American citizens were in jeopardy and gave the federal government the right to overturn local laws that interfered with those rights. Previous to Shelby County, many local jurisdictions across the South were actually required to seek federal approval before making changes to their voting laws. In 2013, the Court argued that circumstances had changed in those areas since the VRA was enacted in 1965, and that federal interference in local laws in the case of the VRA was unconstitutional. This immediately opened the door for future discrimination against African Americans and other minority groups alike. As a response, several states have passed voter ID laws, which require potential voters to have picture ID to register.
We have come so far in the fight to correct racial injustices and disenfranchisement in this country, but the road ahead remains long. When states pass voter ID laws, voting among minorities decreases because not everyone has access to or the means to acquire photo ID. It is crucial, especially now, that minority voices are heard in elections where they outcomes impact them the most. In addition, in most states, those convicted of a felony or who are currently incarcerated are not allowed to vote even after being released from prison. This disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens impacts 16- and 17-year-olds charged as adults, especially--it can take away their right to vote before they even reach legal voting age when they turn 18.
CFYJ’s theme for the year is “Local Elections Matter,” and through this initiative we are encouraging everyone to become familiar with where candidates in their local and crucial mid-term elections stand on youth justice issues. This applies to other issues as well--especially when it comes to candidates’ positions on racial equity and voting rights. Another important way to get involved would be to host a voter registration event in your community, assuring that vulnerable and disenfranchised voters have access to a safe registration space and can make their voices heard.
In all, our trip to Selma was a strengthening reminder that the fight is not over. There are still many steps to be taken to protect the rights of marginalized groups, and every individual can take action to make change in their own communities and the country--just as the people of Selma did, more than 50 years ago.