The Fight Against Discrimination in Voting Continues 56 Years After “Bloody Sunday”

John Lewis and other protestors standing in a group on one side and state troopers walking towards them from the other side
John Lewis (right) and other civil rights protesters encountering state troopers on March 7, 1965. Photo by Spider Martin

It has been 56 years since the “Bloody Sunday” March on Selma that finally generated the popular will for former President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign into law the Voting Rights Act (VRA), our country’s best defense against racial discrimination in elections.

On March 7, 1965, civil rights icon and former Rep. John Lewis and 600 other activists attempted to complete a peaceful march from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest how the state prevented communities of color from voting.

At the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers violently beat the protesters. Seventeen were hospitalized, and more than 50 were treated for lesser injuries.

The images of the state troopers hurting the protesters earned that pivotal march the name “Bloody Sunday” and appalled the American public. To respond to the ensuing outcry, on August 6, 1965, Johnson finally enshrined the VRA into law.

“Bloody Sunday” followed several efforts by civil rights activists to help Black voters in Selma cast their ballots. In January 1965, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Selma to join nonviolent protests in the community.

Many people were arrested at these protests, including King, who wrote in a letter to The New York Times, “This is Selma, Alabama. There are more negroes in jail with me than there are on the voting rolls.” Despite representing half of Dallas county’s population, only 2% of registered voters were Black at the time.

However, thanks to the VRA, the number of racial minority voters, as well as representation in government for communities of color in Alabama and across the country, increased in the following decades.

For instance, the number of registered Black voters skyrocketed from less than a million in 1965 to nearly 3.6 million in 1986. Around the time that VRA was signed into law, there were about 70 Black elected officials in the South, but by the turn of the 21st century, there were 5,000.

But still to this day, the fight to ensure equitable access to voting for all American citizens is ongoing.

In 2013, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that has proved to be a setback for ensuring that all Americans can exercise their right to vote.

That case, called Shelby County v. Holder, struck down Section 5 of the VRA, which established a preclearance process for jurisdictions with long histories of racial discrimination in voting, requiring that they receive approval from the federal government before instituting new voting rules.

Since then, states and localities have instated discriminatory measures like polling place closures and purges of voters from state voter rolls that make it harder for Black, Latinx, Asian, and Native American people to vote.

Especially in 2021, lawmakers in several states are using harmful lies about the 2020 elections to pass a scourge of legislative proposals that would disenfranchise communities of color at a disproportionately high rate.

On March 2, 2021, the Supreme Court also heard arguments in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, a case brought by those who are making a concerted effort to chip away at the VRA. This case deals with Section 2 of the VRA, which provides protection against racial discrimination in voting. The court’s decision in this case will have profound consequences for the future of voting rights in the U.S.

As in 1965, our country is at a crossroads. What we do now will determine access to voting rights not just for ourselves, but also for future generations. Thus, our government at both the state and federal level must affirm that racial discrimination has no place in our elections.

State governments can make more equitable and representative election systems by implementing their own state VRAs, like California, Oregon, and Washington have already done and as New York and Virginia are working on doing. Only after these laws are on the books can states force localities with discriminatory election systems to change for the better.

State VRAs would not only protect communities who have faced challenges with accessing voting in lieu of a weakened federal VRA, they could also improve upon the original VRA by creating better mechanisms for addressing local instances of voting discrimination.

At the national level, Congress should also pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, H.R. 4, which would create a modernized preclearance formula for jurisdictions that have had discrimination in their voting laws.  

Our democracy works best when everyone can participate. We should act at both the state and national level to uphold the key provisions of the VRA and ensure that every American can exercise their fundamental right to vote.

Georgia is a Communications Assistant at CLC.