Hours after two presidents and thousands of others walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, we were reminded again what their predecessors in Selma marched against a half century ago.
On Sunday night, an activist group at the University of Oklahoma posted a 10-second video showing members of the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) singing about blacks. The video was blurry at times, and the words not always clear, but the message was:
“There will never be a n----- SAE/There will never be a n----- SAE/You can hang ‘em from a tree, but it will never start with me/There will never be a n----- SAE.”
By early Monday, the fraternity was closed by the national chapter, and University of Oklahoma president David Boren said the school also was investigating. Which is as it should be.
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But before you dismiss the video as a foolish college mistake – perhaps fueled by intoxication –consider this: The fraternity members didn’t have any problems singing the tune and words in unison. They had clearly sung this before. And no, there are no blacks in that SAE chapter.
It’s the kind of exclusion that prompted marches 50 years ago – no, not being shut out of a fraternity, but being so casually and gleefully turned away from the most basic things. A meal at a restaurant. An equal education. And maybe most importantly, the right to cast a ballot.
Now, that right is being chipped at by legislation in states across the country, including a North Carolina law containing several provisions designed to make it more difficult for blacks to vote. The law reduces early voting and eliminates same-day registration during early voting. It prohibits counting provisional ballots if voters vote out of their district, and it administers unnecessarily strict photo ID requirements.
The N.C. law and a similarly suppressive Texas law are being challenged in lawsuits by the U.S. Department of Justice. But the Justice Department has been handcuffed by a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act requiring some states to get pre-clearance before enacting voting law changes.
The ruling tasked Congress with developing a new formula to determine which states should be required to have pre-clearance. That’s unlikely anytime soon because the Republican-controlled Congress is happy with the status quo of voter suppression laws and the electoral advantage of packing blacks into a handful of voting districts.
On Sunday in Selma, President Obama called on lawmakers to restore the power of the Voting Rights Act. Then he marched with his family to the Edmund Pettus Bridge. There, he was flanked by those who had marched a half-century ago.
It seems like such a long time ago, that first march, especially with a black president now standing on that bridge. But as a video just hours later reminded us once again, there are still more steps to take.