The United States is at a monumental crossroads in the year 2020. As a presidential election awaits in the very near future, so many of the civil rights that countless Americans fought for – and were beaten, imprisoned and even killed for – are on the line. This weekend, we remember one of those pivotal moments in history that helped shape the course of the civil rights movement and the trajectory of our nation.
It was 55 years ago when nonviolent demonstrators in Selma, Alabama attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to the state capital of Montgomery in their push for voting rights for African Americans. At the foot of the bridge, they were met by Alabama state troopers on horseback armed with billy clubs and pepper spray. “Bloody Sunday” as it would come to be known left dozens hospitalized, hundreds (including children) traumatized and the country disgusted. But what it also did was galvanize even more solidarity as many other protests, sit-ins and marches took place everywhere comprised of a cross-section of Americans. A federal court order permitted a protest from Selma to Montgomery a few weeks later under the protection of the National Guard. Bloody Sunday, the peaceful marches of Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr and others, as well as the public’s support eventually pushed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act which was finally signed into law later that summer.
This weekend, all roads once again lead to Selma as we pay homage to the historical sacrifices of people like Congressman John Lewis (who was beaten badly on Bloody Sunday) and Reverend Hosea Williams who both led the march that infamous day, as well as the hundreds of others who walked along with them knowing that they may face danger. At a moment when the very rights they were courageously fighting for – that basic fundamental right to vote – is under renewed threat. Voters are being purged from the rolls in key states, strict new voter ID laws are in place in dozens of states, modern day poll taxes are being enacted for some in places like Florida and voter suppression tactics are being implemented in many jurisdictions and states. It is an insult to the brave souls that tirelessly fought for our right to vote.
As candidates vie for the Democratic nomination in this year’s Presidential election, they understand the importance of Bloody Sunday, of our vote and of fighting to preserve that legal right. Many of these presidential hopefuls appeared this week at the South Carolina Minister’s Breakfast that I convened ahead of that state’s primary on Saturday. Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Steyer, Bernie Sanders Peter Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar all attended to address the crucial role of the black vote, the black church and our work advancing the legacy and vision of Dr King. Many of those candidates will be in Selma this Sunday as they not only march to honor the past, but also participate in the first ever Selma Presidential Candidate Forum to lay the groundwork for the future.
There’s only a few months remaining between now and the November election. The outcome of this presidential race will have an impact on every aspect of our lives from health care, education, equal pay, jobs, worker’s rights, the social safety net, wages, housing, environmental laws, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigration, civil rights, protections for minority groups to everything in between. Our collective future – both as a nation and on the world stage – is literally on the line. And because of this importance, many forces have worked hard to take away people’s fundamental right to vote. Some are actively suppressing a person’s ability to participate in the process, to have a say in their own government and to help build the country that they would like to see.
Civil rights leaders 55 years ago, and all those before them, understood the significance of that right to vote. The civil rights leaders of today understand the significance of fighting to preserve those rights. And the Democratic presidential candidates themselves also understand the significance of honoring the sacrifices of the past and ensuring that our fight and our voices are not excluded. As everyone gathers in Selma this Sunday and prepares for November’s election, I’d just like to remind those who may be misguided into believing that their vote doesn’t matter or take it for granted, that many sacrificed greatly so that we could have this fundamental right to vote.
And if it wasn’t so important, why would people be working around the clock to come up with new schemes to take away your chance to participate in our democracy?