When civil-rights activists converge on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge next Saturday, they’ll have a bigger goal than simply commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, helped secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act. This year, dozens of politicians will be there to join the celebration, and activists hope to persuade them that a better way to honor Selma’s legacy is to extend the legal protections it secured. Thanks to the eponymous Oscar-nominated film, there has been no shortage of remembrances of Selma. This year’s pilgrimage, organized by the Faith and Politics Institute, will command more attention than others have in recent years. Not only will President Obama make the trip, but so will his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, who signed the last renewal of the landmark law in 2006. African American leaders view the bipartisan commemoration as a crucial moment to marshal support and pressure Republican leaders for new voting-rights legislation in Congress.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key tenet of the Voting Rights Act. In a 5-4 opinion that fell along ideological lines, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the formula used to determine which parts of the country would need federal approval, or “preclearance,” to change their voting procedures was outdated. The court instructed Congress to write a new formula that “speaks to current conditions,” but nearly two years later, neither the House nor the Senate has held a vote.
Democrats assailed the ruling, warning that it would give Republican state legislatures in the South carte blanche to move ahead with voter-identification laws and other restrictions disproportionately affecting historically underrepresented populations. Within two months of the decision, North Carolina enacted an expansive voter ID law, and other states followed suit ahead of the 2014 election. “We’re moving backwards in an area where we should be making voting easier rather than harder,” Representative John Conyers said by phone last week. “We’re going in the wrong direction.” He pointed to lower turnout among African Americans in southern states during 2014 as evidence that the Supreme Court ruling was already having an impact. “That’s what we’re trying to end,” he told me. (Black voter turnout has consistently dropped in non-presidential years, however.) Cornell Brooks, the NAACP president, has gone even further, calling the efforts to restrict voting in Republican-led states “a Machiavellian frenzy of disenfranchisement.”