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The 40th anniversary of Selma's Bloody Sunday and its role in the Voting Rights Act

Bloody Sunday in Selma Alabama. (1965, AP)

I was two when this Selma occurred, but I know how much people sacrificed to ensure I could cast my vote. I know how much the events in Selma changed the South, in its perception of itself, as well as the rest of the country’s perception of the region. We’re still playing out those differences today, in the incredible divide that has grown politically that we now discuss abstractly as Red and Blue. It’s good to take a look back and the progress and the work that remains. (Montgomery Advertiser)

Albert Southall still gets emotional when he remembers that bloody day 40 years ago.

Southall, 58, was just one of the hundreds of people from across the nation to converge on downtown Selma on Saturday for the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The atmosphere in the small town was cheerful as people celebrated the progress black Southerners have made since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the fight for civil rights.

…Underneath all the cheer, however, remain the memories of what happened on March 7, 1965. That was the day Alabama State Troopers and Dallas County Sheriff’s deputies used billy clubs, tear gas and cattle prods to stop a group of about 600 black Alabamians and supporters from marching to Montgomery in a bid for voting rights. “They turned us around ’cause they said we didn’t have a permit to demonstrate,” Southall said. “It was eerie when we crossed the (Edmund Pettus) bridge and saw all those troopers, the dogs, the horses. We were ready, but you can’t really get ready for something like that.”

After issuing warnings to the crowd to disperse, the troopers blasted the marchers with tear gas. “The tear gas is what did it,” Southall said. “Tear gas makes you feel like you’re going to die. Everybody panicked….”I got a cattle prod,” Southall said, pointing to an area around his upper rear thigh. “It was like somebody shook your body to the bones.”

The ACLU’s release on the anniversary notes that five months after “Bloody Sunday,” Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. The act put an end to poll taxes, literacy tests, and other discriminatory barriers commonly faced by black voters. The increase in the number of black elected officials as a result of the act is staggering — from 300 in 1964 to over 9,100 today. That is progress to celebrate, even as there is much work to be done.

Elected officials that attended a ceremony marking the anniversary are keenly aware that the people that lived through those times, the ones that can speak first-hand about the experiences, are passing on. To keep the importance of this landmark civil rights event in our collective cultural mind requires teaching future generations about what happened and why. It’s frightening, as you’ll see a bit below, that our President is one of those people that requires education on this.

From left, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Cincinnati, Ohio, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson, D-Texas, lay a wreath at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery on Saturday. (via Mongomery Advertiser)

(Mongomery Advertiser):

[U.S. Rep.] John Lewis, who has led the delegation to Alabama for the past several years, suffered a concussion on March 7, 1965, when Alabama State Troopers and Dallas County Sheriff’s deputies routed 600 activists who had tried to march to the Capitol to see Gov. George Wallace.

….”We’re down the road for sure, but we’re not at the end yet,” said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who was making his third trip with Lewis to Alabama. “I brought four high school students from my district with me.” Upton was 10 when Bloody Sunday occurred, but it made an impression on him that remains strong. “Until Selma, the country didn’t wake up,” he said. “The congressman from my district who served during the ’60s actually voted against the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.”

Upton said the Voting Rights Act is set to expire in two years, but predicted that bipartisan support will help secure a 10-year extension “if not a permanent extension.”

Folks should note that Reagan was aware of its importance and ratified its extension, as did President Ford and Chimpy’s father — George H.W. Bush.

Where is Chimpy on this? Well, “Houston, we have a problem.” I posted on this back in January, when columnist Clarence Page wrote about the unbelievable response from the Chimperor when members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other leaders asked him about renewal of the Act.

According to various eyewitnesses at a private meeting in the White House Cabinet Room last week, the president was characteristically cordial, yet remarkably non-committal in responding to a wide range of questions, mostly about racial disparities concerning such issues as employment, education, health care and legal rights. But the most “mind-boggling moment,” in the words of Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), came after Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) asked the president, “Do we have your support in extending and strengthening the 1965 Voting Rights Act when it comes up for renewal in 2007?

The president responded, according to witnesses, in a way that made caucus jaws drop: He did not know enough about that particular law to respond to it, he said, and that he would deal with the legislation when it comes up.

People that wish to exercise their right to vote today may not have state troopers beating on them with billy clubs or blasting tear gas, but we’re certainly facing a whole lot of high-tech chicanery that has effectively made casting a vote an uncertain proposition (see The Brad Blog‘s tireless work on 2004’s election fraud and mistabulation).

The irony is that “race”, an artificial construct created to ensure political and economic power remains in the hands of the dominant culture, is just as important today, sad to say, but the conflict manifests itself in different ways. Bull Connor’s dogs may not be nipping at folks’ heels, but the “driving/voting/shopping/walking/hailing a taxi while black” phenomenon is alive and well in many parts of the country, Red and Blue.

BTW, I’ve personally experienced the “shopping while black” and ‘hailing a taxi while black” variations on the above theme — and those happened while I lived in NYC. My friend Carole (she’s black) and her husband Dave (he’s white) and I would play this game where Carole and I would step out and watch cab after cab go by, not stopping. He would then step out and BOOM. One would pull right over. Then we’d all hop in.

I was followed by a shopowner in a green grocer in NY as I went down the aisles browsing (I was dressed up, no less, because we had just gone ou
t to a Broadway show). I turned and asked her if she had a problem, and she said no, she had just had problems with shoplifting recently, and then she skulked off. That may not be violence, but it’s the kind of bullsh*t that could eat at your self-worth over time if you don’t have your head on straight.

One has to commend Coretta Scott King for her strong support of gay rights, but there are way too many in the community, well aware of Selma, that see the struggle of gays and lesbians not to be fired from jobs, to serve in the military and to marry, as invalid, siding with the Religious Right. You’ve got self-loathing blacks cozying up to the GOP (see our friends at Project 21), and advisers to Dr. King like Walter Fauntroy holding press conferences with Rick Santorum in support of FMA.

That’s progress, huh?

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding