Republican congressional leaders joined with their Democratic colleagues this week in a rare show of bipartisan unity to present the Congressional Gold Medal — the nation’s highest civilian honor — to the “foot soldiers” who took part in historic marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March 1965 demanding voting rights for black Americans. Those nonviolent protests and the official violence that met them helped secure passage of the federal Voting Rights Act, a landmark law banning racial discrimination in elections. But that law was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling in a case out of Alabama, a decision that effectively ended the requirement that states with a history of voter discrimination — mostly in the South — get Department of Justice preclearance for changes to election laws. Now two bills have been introduced in Congress to restore that provision of the Voting Rights Act — but they’re being blocked by some of the same Republican leaders who helped honor the voting rights marchers.
That’s not sitting well with some march organizers. Rev. C.T. Vivian, an Alabama civil rights activist who famously confronted segregationist Sheriff Jim Clark on the steps of Selma’s courthouse while leading black people to register to vote in 1965, spoke out about it during a Feb. 23 press call organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 civil rights and labor groups.
“The Congress that wants to honor us won’t get its act together to restore what we lost, what we worked so hard for,” Vivian said. “We won’t allow our legacy to be neutered and relegated to the museums. A medal will not mollify us. The way to truly honor our sacrifice is to fully restore the Voting Rights Act.”
Vivian noted that the marchers were being honored during Black History Month — “as though the Voting Rights Act was something out of a history book.”