On 7 March 1965, the nation came to grips with one of the most iconic images synonymous with the fight for voting rights and equality. Amelia Boynton, a matriarch of the civil rights movement, lead strategist in the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and my great-aunt, helped prick the conscience of a nation struggling to confront the lie of racism and injustice.
She, alongside the late congressman John Lewis and many others, staged a 52-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest the murder of the voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson at the hands of law enforcement and to dramatize the struggle for the right to vote.
After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were met by a sea of Alabama state troopers and sheriff deputies determined to hinder the momentum and movement they had garnered. On this anniversary, let us honor our ancestors not by mere reflections and thoughts, but by continuing to push our lawmakers to invest in full democracy that requires the restoration of a new Voting Rights Act.
Until she died at the age of 104, my great-aunt Amelia would solemnly recount that day, which became known as Bloody Sunday, when she and other peaceful marchers fell victim to teargas and beatings. She felt two blows, one on the arm and the other on the head, and fell to the ground unconscious, gasping for breath as Sheriff Jim Clark stood by refusing to offer aid. There were screams, cries and moans for more than a mile, as people were brutally attacked from the front of the line all the way back to Brown’s Chapel AME church, she recounted. Little did they know that Bloody Sunday would mark one of the greatest struggles for freedom and liberation in modern times. As the struggle in Birmingham and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Selma to Montgomery marches led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, as I look back at history and reflect on recent events, I can’t help but wonder: what progress have we really made, as a society, to protect and expand our fundamental right to vote?
The 6 January 2021 attempted coup at the US Capitol, followed by the impeachment acquittal of Donald Trump by Republican senators, was an assault on our democracy in real time. Perpetuated by Trump’s conspiracy theories and aided and abetted by many of his enablers, the false claims of a rigged election led to violence and death that day. Even more concerning, however, are those within power who still push the false conspiracy of voter fraud and election irregularities as a cover for widespread voter suppression tactics. Though we may claim that the violence on 6 January was and still is a threat to our democracy, the real danger to democratic norms comes from pervasive voter suppression schemes across the country.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there have been 253 bills introduced in 43 states since the start of 2021 to restrict expanded voting opportunities. As the Brennan Center explains: “These proposals primarily seek to: 1) limit mail voting access; 2) impose stricter voter ID requirements; 3) slash voter registration opportunities; and 4) enable more aggressive voter roll purges.” These bills are being introduced in state legislatures throughout the country by Republican legislators.
Since Shelby County v Holder, a 2013 US supreme court case which gutted key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, at least 25 states have passed racist voter suppression laws, including to reduce early voting days and create barriers to language access. This is in addition to partisan gerrymandering and redistricting measures that create obstacles across race and class lines. These measures disproportionately target Black, brown, indigenous and poor white people joining together to demand progressive change. The real threat to our democracy is not the man who recently held the highest office, but rather those throughout our state legislatures who continue to push false narratives about voter fraud.
My great-aunt, who worked tirelessly for the right to vote for several decades beginning in the 1930s, knew that change happens only when people affected by racism come together in a movement and force the status quo to change. Today I continue to carry that family legacy as an organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. We believe that voter suppression throughout the country goes hand-in-hand with the injustices of systemic racism, systemic poverty, militarism and the war economy, ecological devastation and false moral narratives of religious nationalism. Strengthened and guided by the spirits of our ancestors, we are very clear in our demands to protect and expand voting rights and civil rights. These include, but are not limited to, the restoration of the Voting Rights Act and reinstatement of the pre-clearance formula that applies to formerly covered Voting Rights Act jurisdictions; making election day a holiday; ensuring the formerly and currently incarcerated the right to vote; ensuring a comprehensive census count; and extending statehood to Washington DC.
This must be a movement led by those impacted, across geography, ethnicity, race and creed, to restore our democracy and push for passage of a new, landmark Voting Rights Act, so that our nation will not have to keep fighting the same battles that my great-aunt, others, and now myself continue to challenge.