History was made in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. Alabama state troopers viciously attacked peaceful voting rights marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The troopers were hoping to stop the voting rights movement in its tracks. But their violence did the opposite. Televised images of “Bloody Sunday” offended the conscience of people of good faith around the country. The movement was energized. And soon, the federal Voting Rights Act became law.
Voting rights activists were back in Selma this month to commemorate history—and to make it.
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at the Edmund Pettus bridge. As the first Black woman to hold that high office, she embodies many of the victories of the civil rights movement. From that “hallowed ground,” she spoke truth about the “un-American” laws that have passed in many states to make it harder for Black people and others to vote.
Vice President Harris recognized that 2022 is not 1965, as her presence made clear. “We again, however, find ourselves caught in between,” she said.
“Between injustice and justice. Between disappointment and determination. Still in a fight to form a more perfect union. And nowhere is that clearer than when it comes to the ongoing fight to secure the freedom to vote.”
The threat to voting rights today comes most directly from state legislators and governors putting laws in place that make it harder for Black people and others to vote. The threat also comes from a far-right-dominated Supreme Court that has mostly abandoned voting rights in favor of “states’ rights.” In a 2013 decision in a case that began in Shelby County, Alabama, the court’s majority gutted a section of the Voting Rights Act that prevented states from imposing racially discriminatory changes in voting laws and regulations.
Since then—and especially since historic turnout by Black voters helped defeat Donald Trump’s reelection bid—legislators in state after state have passed new barriers to voting. The Supreme Court is letting them get away with it.
And just recently the Supreme Court’s far-right justices allowed Alabama to hold elections this year using racially gerrymandered congressional maps created by the state legislature. That was another signal to Black voters and voting rights supporters that the current court majority cannot be counted on to protect our rights.
We must organize. We must elect pro-voting-rights majorities in Congress and state legislatures wherever we can. And we must demand that they take action to protect our democracy.
That brings us back to Selma. As a young man, the late Rep. John Lewis nearly gave his life on the Edmund Pettus bridge to secure voting rights. Activist leaders of this generation are now building on that history and making their own.
A coalition of local and national civil rights groups used this year’s Bloody Sunday commemorations as a time to look forward as well as back. They organized a march and a series of voting rights events along the route of the original Selma to Montgomery march. They are lifting up younger generations of leaders and mobilizing activists around the connections between voting rights and the broader movement to advance opportunity and economic justice.
At the same time, civil rights activists around the country are organizing to achieve another historical milestone: the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black woman to serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. As expected, Judge Jackson’s nomination has been met with some resistance and racist commentary. But it is generating even more excitement and enthusiasm.
Our country’s history is in part a history of struggle to achieve hard-won progress toward more universal access to rights and opportunities. That is still our struggle today. Like the work of the activist leaders who are building a movement to protect voting rights and expand access to opportunity, the confirmation of Judge Jackson will move the nation forward toward the ideal of equal justice. It’s our turn to keep our feet on the ground, our shoulders to the wheel, and our eyes on the prize.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and Professor of the Practice in the Africana Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania where he teaches leadership. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.