The 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and a re-enactment in Knoxville on Sunday did more than honor a noteworthy event. Both ceremonies emphasized what the right to vote means to many Americans and what it should mean to all. The event in Selma helped gain passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and now is a vital part of this nation’s legacy. Voting is a right mentioned several times in the Constitution and subsequent amendments; it is more than a privilege. Significantly, no one participating in the observances in Selma or in Knoxville last week believed that the 1965 legislation or its remembrance marked the end of the quest. Pernicious state laws requiring photo identification to vote and Supreme Court decisions weakening the 1965 law open the way to expand discrimination.
One area that has been largely overlooked is restoration of voting rights to felons in Tennessee, about half of whom are blacks in a state where they represent just 17 percent of the population. The current emphasis on voting rights offers an opportunity to look again at a heavy-handed state policy.
The Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported last year that Tennessee is one of the most restrictive states for restoring the right to vote to people who have been imprisoned for felonies.