I carry in my mind a picture of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the beginning of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march on March 21, 1965. What makes that picture so vivid to me 48 years later, as we prepare to celebrate his 84th birthday this month, is that voting rights issues I once imagined were over have resurfaced on a national scale. The biggest difference between then and now is that today’s voter suppression operations are highly sophisticated, compared with the crude, racist ones conducted by Southern sheriffs and voter registrars through the middle 1960s. Before the 2012 elections, well-funded efforts in state after state tried to curtail the participation of poor and minority voters by introducing burdensome voter ID requirements, despite a record showing individual voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in the United States.
A five-year, nationwide investigation into voter fraud by the George W. Bush administration resulted in just 86 convictions.
At the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, King delivered one of his most memorable speeches before a crowd of 25,000 on the steps of the capitol. “Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered on the right to vote,” he declared. “We are on the move now, and no wave of racism can stop us.” The beginnings of the march, which came about after violent clashes that pitted Alabama police and state troopers against civil rights protesters and black Alabamans trying to get on the voter rolls, were more uncertain. By current demonstration standards, those of us gathered at Selma, a hard town to reach for anyone who didn’t live nearby, were few — 3,200 by most estimates.
As he moved to the front of the line, King seemed eager to get started. He gave no indication he was worried about his own safety. When the march moved down U.S. Highway 80, he appeared unperturbed by the counterprotest that seemed jolting to me: a “Coonsville USA” sign, young kids carrying BB guns screaming “white nigger.” King had, I realized, accepted such hatred as part of his lot in life. He could not know that by August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act would be signed into law by President Johnson. He could only hope the Selma march changed more minds than were in the rows of us walking behind him.
The voter suppression efforts that were aimed at preventing President Obama from being re-elected in 2012 are a reminder that the decisive victory the 1965 Voting Rights Act provided can be undermined if we are not vigilant. The Supreme Court already has on its calendar a case, Shelby County v. Holder, that tests the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires state and local governments, primarily in the Deep South, with a history of discrimination to obtain “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department before making any changes affecting voting.