But What of Selma, Worldwide Symbol of Voting Rights and Freedom?

Two of SOS’s founding members, Alabama State Sen. Hank Sanders and Attorney/Poet Faya Rose Toure, have written their perspectives in the New York Times on Selma — its storied past, its stagnated present and their future in the city they’ve fought to love:

selmamarchersinmontg1965_npsSELMA, Ala. — The memory is as powerful as if it were yesterday. On March 25, 1965, tens of thousands of us gathered before the Alabama State Capitol, the endpoint of a five-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called out, “How long?” and the crowd responded, “Not long!” The moment was electric. We believed it would not be long before the right to vote was deeply rooted and bearing fruit in America.

In one sense, we were right. The Voting Rights Act, passed just months after the Selma marches, banned the discriminatory voting practices that many southern states had enacted following the Civil War. Over time, the Act enabled millions of African-Americans to register to vote, and for decades following its passage, voting rights continued to slowly expand. But in another sense we are still waiting. Either Dr. King was wrong or “not long” is biblical, measured in generations.

We came to Selma in 1971, newly married and fresh out of Harvard Law School. Our intentions were to stay for five years. We were sure that by then Dr. King’s vision of voting rights would have been realized. Over 40 years later, not only are the fruits scarce, but the roots are shallow and feeble.

Celebrations, commemorations and movies make people feel good, but the reality is that voting rights have been rolled back dramatically in recent years. The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, striking down a central provision requiring certain states, including Alabama, to obtain federal clearance before changing voting procedures. Since then, several states have limited access to voting by blacks and others. Today, all Alabama voters must show photo identification. In Alabama and other states, this I.D. must be government-issued. These policies, which disproportionately affect minority, poor and elderly voters who are less likely to possess government-issued I.D.s, are the 21st-century equivalent of the Jim Crow-era poll tax and literacy test.

Dr. King understood that voting would be the last right granted to African-Americans because it was the most powerful. Indeed, if we had better understood our history, we would not have been surprised that “not long” has stretched into a half-century. We did not remember that, though the 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote in 1870, Congress in 1894 repealed legislation enacted in 1870 and 1871 that provided robust and necessary enforcements of that right. In a sense, in 1965 we were trying to get back to where we briefly were in America in the 1870s.

But what of Selma, the worldwide symbol of voting rights and freedom?

As Dr. King urged, we marched on the ballot boxes. In 1965 there were 300 registered African-American voters and zero African-American elected officials in Dallas County, where Selma is located; in 2015 there were 19,862 registered African-American voters and 19 African-American elected officials. But we greatly underestimated the power of those who control the voting process.

It took over 35 years to dislodge Joseph T. Smitherman, who was mayor of Selma on March 7, 1965, the day known as Bloody Sunday, when lawmen disrupted the first attempted Selma-to-Montgomery march, brutally attacking peaceful demonstrators. Today most elected officials in Selma are African-American. But in Dallas County — which is about 70 percent black — whites hold six of the seven countywide elected positions. Until 2010, eight African-Americans chaired meaningful committees in the Alabama State Senate. Now we are isolated minorities without a single position of statewide influence.

Some progress has been made in the justice system, though real justice remains far removed. The Selma mayor and police chief are African-American, and Dallas County has an African-American district attorney. But black men are often held in jail for extended periods on multimillion dollar bonds, and police brutality and profiling of the poor remain far too prevalent.

In Dallas County, the number of African-Americans living at poverty level is nearly eight times that of whites. Too many African-Americans in Selma still live in substandard housing. And while the law no longer requires it, nearly all African-American children here still attend schools that are effectively segregated. Our granddaughter graduates from high school in Selma this year, and there was not one white child in any of her classes from first through 12th grade.

Despite our city’s fame as a cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans in Selma who dare to discuss these issues openly and honestly are called racists, haters and worse.

Yes, we marched on the ballot boxes. But for the tens of thousands of African-Americans in Selma, life, as Langston Hughes said, “ain’t been no crystal stair.” Better off is not equal.

We came to Selma over four decades ago; today we are both in our seventies. When we arrived, we agreed that every five years we would decide anew whether to stay or leave. Each time we chose to stay. The choice is coming up again next year. What shall we do? The struggle continues because the challenges remain great.

Hank Sanders has served as a member of the Alabama State Senate since 1983. Faya Rose Toure is an attorney and civil rights activist. 

Voting Rights Anniversary Today Should Be A Celebration, But It’s Not

[Note: The Voting Rights Act was signed into law 49 years ago today. Sadly, the anniversary comes at a time when this vital democratic right has been rolled back. Until it is fully restored and strengthened, our country and state have little to celebrate. Read this note from Alabama State Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma.] 
Hank SandersAugust 6 ought to be a day of great celebration but it is not. President Jimmy Carter ought to celebrate August 6. President Bill Clinton ought to celebrate August 6. President Barack Obama ought to celebrate August 6 but they don’t.You and I ought to celebrate August 6. Everyone in the United States of America ought to celebrate August 6. African Americans especially ought to celebrate August 6. But we don’t.
August 6 is barely recognized, not to speak of celebrated.Something grand happened on August 6. Something happened on August 6 that was so sweeping that it changed the United States of America. Something happened on August 6 that made the entire country take a giant step toward fulfilling the promise of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Something happened that impacted not just the United States of America but much of the world. But we don’t even recall what happened on August 6 to
even recognize it, not to speak of celebrating it. 

If you are wondering what is so great about August 6, I will not keep you in suspense any longer. Please know that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson on this date. It was a watershed moment in American History and influenced World History. August 6 must be celebrated.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while Martin Luther King and others look on. LBJ Library, Yoichi R. Okamoto.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while Martin Luther King and others look on. LBJ Library, Yoichi R. Okamoto.

When President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act making it the law of the land, among other things, he said the following: Today is a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has been won on any battlefield….

The law covers many pages. But the heart of the Act is plain. Whenever, by clear and objective standards, states and counties are using regulations, or laws, or tests, to deny the right to vote, then they will be struck down…

….the vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men…..

It is nothing less than granting every Negro his freedom to enter the mainstream of American life: not the conformity that blurs enriching differences of culture and tradition, but rather the opportunity to choose.

For centuries oppression and hatred have taken their painful toll. It can be seen throughout our land in men without skills, in children without fathers, in families that are imprisoned in slums and poverty.

…. Thus, this is a victory for the freedom of the American Negro. But it is a victory for the freedom of the American Nation. And every family across this great, entire, searching land will live longer in liberty, will live more splendid in expectation, and will be prouder to be American because of the Act that you have passed that I will sign today.

I wish that each of us could read President Johnson’s entire August 6 speech for many other noteworthy statements are shared. If you read his remarks, you will understand that August 6 is a day that we all must celebrate.

We already celebrate the struggle for the right to vote and rightfully so. We celebrate Bloody Sunday, the Selma to Montgomery March and other voting rights struggles in March each year. We commemorate the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and others who died in the struggle for the right to vote. We include the Voting Rights Act in our celebration. However, the legislative struggle for the Voting Rights Act was also a long and powerful struggle. The 1965 Voting Rights Act signed on August 6 was a concrete culmination of that struggle. August 6 must be lifted and celebrated. We must declare August 6 as National Voting Rights Day.

In our celebration of August 6, we must also recommit to preserving and strengthening the right to vote which is currently under determined attack. We must overcome the gutting of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by the U. S. Supreme Court. We must overcome the Supreme Court’s narrowing the breath and shallowing the depth of the Voting Rights Act. We must overcome the numerous state laws that make it more difficult to vote. We must have a day of national celebration to strengthen the right to vote for everyone.