The memory is as powerful as if it were yesterday. On March 25, 1965, tens of thousands of us gathered before the Alabama State Capitol, the endpoint of a five-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called out, “How long?” and the crowd responded, “Not long!” The moment was electric. We believed it would not be long before the right to vote was deeply rooted and bearing fruit in America. In one sense, we were right. The Voting Rights Act, passed just months after the Selma marches, banned the discriminatory voting practices that many southern states had enacted following the Civil War. Over time, the Act enabled millions of African-Americans to register to vote, and for decades following its passage, voting rights continued to slowly expand. But in another sense we are still waiting. Either Dr. King was wrong or “not long” is biblical, measured in generations. We came to Selma in 1971, newly married and fresh out of Harvard Law School. Our intentions were to stay for five years. We were sure that by then Dr. King’s vision of voting rights would have been realized. Over 40 years later, not only are the fruits scarce, but the roots are shallow and feeble.
Celebrations, commemorations and movies make people feel good, but the reality is that voting rights have been rolled back dramatically in recent years. The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, striking down a central provision requiring certain states, including Alabama, to obtain federal clearance before changing voting procedures. Since then, several states have limited access to voting by blacks and others. Today, all Alabama voters must show photo identification. In Alabama and other states, this I.D. must be government-issued. These policies, which disproportionately affect minority, poor and elderly voters who are less likely to possess government-issued I.D.s, are the 21st-century equivalent of the Jim Crow-era poll tax and literacy test.
Dr. King understood that voting would be the last right granted to African-Americans because it was the most powerful. Indeed, if we had better understood our history, we would not have been surprised that “not long” has stretched into a half-century. We did not remember that, though the 15th Amendment gave black men the right to vote in 1870, Congress in 1894 repealed legislation enacted in 1870 and 1871 that provided robust and necessary enforcements of that right. In a sense, in 1965 we were trying to get back to where we briefly were in America in the 1870s.
Full Article: Still Waiting in Selma – NYTimes.com.