Half a century after the Selma march, the United States is turning its back on civil rights.
Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Depicted in the highly acclaimed recent movie “Selma,” the brutal police assault on nonviolent protesters became a turning point in the civil rights movement and a factor leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Today, the political heirs of those who stood in the way of equality back in the 1960s are doing whatever they can to roll back these gains.
In 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Dallas County Voters League organized a voter registration campaign in Selma.
On March 7, 600 demonstrators in Selma marched only six blocks before they were met by law enforcement at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. State troopers dispatched by segregationist Gov. George Wallace attacked the marchers with teargas, leather whips and billy clubs.
U.S. television cameras filmed the acts of barbarism in their entirety to a stunned national audience.
In the coming days, the marches continued. And lives were lost, including James Reeb, a young white Unitarian minister from Boston who was clubbed to death by the Ku Klux Klan, and Viola Liuzzo, an activist and mother of five.
“What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America,” said President Lyndon Johnson. “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Five decades later, America has a black president and a black attorney general. And yet, we have not overcome.
The U.S. Supreme Court has gutted the key enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The tea party-led Republican Party has made voter disenfranchisement and suppression a top priority.
Voter ID laws across the country have put up obstacles for blacks, Latinos, Asians, the elderly, young people and others. Some state legislatures have reduced voting days, including the Sunday before Election Day, when black churches organize campaigns to go to the polls.
Meanwhile, states around the country have passed “Stand Your Ground” laws that provide immunity to people who claim to fatally shoot someone in self-defense, typically protecting whites who kill blacks.
Further, police are 21 times more likely to shoot young black men to death than young white men, according to a ProPublica analysis. In response, a new movement called #BlackLivesMatter is growing, echoing back to Bloody Sunday and reminding us that the struggles of the past continue into the present.
Fifty years after Selma, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
David A. Love is a freelance writer and human rights advocate based in Philadelphia.