Today, March 7, is the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a voting rights march and its savage reprisals in Selma, Alabama, which played a pivotal role in the long and painful struggle for civil rights and equal opportunities for all Americans. Hundreds of heroes stood together 50 years ago, willing to sacrifice to make our democracy stronger and truly representative. This anniversary continues to stand as a lasting reminder that when we the people lock arms, stand up for what is right, and make our voices heard, we can move our nation and the quality of our democracy forward.
Unfortunately, that struggle is by no means over. We still have many challenges to face, both nationally and here in Texas, before we can reach our common goal. The advances secured by the sacrifices in the past are still under attack today, including the venerable Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s our responsibility – today and in the future – to honor what millions have fought for by taking meaningful action towards the preservation of a fundamental freedom: access to the ballot box.
So on the 50th anniversary, let’s examine why Selma became such a vital milestone on our journey.
In Selma – as in many areas of the deep South – the civil rights movement had been growing since the 1950s, with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954, and in 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white male passenger.
That movement culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning the unequal application of voter registration requirements and opening public accommodations to all regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin. But when it came to testing the Act’s provisions, especially pertaining to race, and especially in Southern states, proponents were met with extreme, often violent, resistance.
Selma was a prime example. At the time, out of a voting-age population of about 30,000 in the city and surrounding Dallas County, more than 50 percent were black, but only a few hundred of these were registered to vote.
After a young protester was shot and killed by a trooper on February 17, 1965, organizers planned a march from Selma to Montgomery for March 7. On that day, a Sunday, about 600 protesters, people of all colors, religions, and ethnicities, set off on the 54-mile trek. They didn’t get far: at the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, on the outskirts of Selma, their path was blocked by state troopers and Selma police.
When the group peacefully refused to turn back, they were savagely attacked by the officers, many of them on horseback. The incident, soon labeled “Bloody Sunday,” was widely broadcast by TV cameras on the scene. It focused the nation’s attention on Selma and, at Dr. King’s urging, brought many supporters to the area.
Two days later, a second march was abandoned when it too was blocked by troopers. That night, a white minister, one of the thousands of supporters who had come to Selma after March 7, was killed by a gang of white thugs. The nation was outraged, and another march left Selma for Montgomery on March 21.
That march was finally successful. Once in Montgomery, on March 25, thousands of marchers and a radio and TV audience of millions heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “How long? Not long” speech, including the immortal lines, “We are moving to the land of freedom… How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Just a few months later, on August 6, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, and by 1970, more than a million new African Americans had registered to vote.
But many challenges to voting rights remain, and nowhere is that more apparent than here in Texas, where onerous voter ID laws and redistricting inequities are still the subject of lawsuits, countersuits, and pending court rulings.
One major setback was the landmark Supreme Court ruling Shelby County v. Holder in June 2013 that overturned an important section of the Voting Rights Act, one that had required states with a history of discrimination to preclear all voting law changes with the Department of Justice or federal courts. The Supreme Court decided that it was unnecessary, and unconstitutional, to single out a state because of its past discriminatory practices.
But the Voting Rights Act wasn’t always so controversial, as it was reauthorized five times, most recently in 2006. During the 2006 reauthorization, the record compiled by Congress showed that unless the law was reauthorized, racial and language minority citizens would be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote or would have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last 40 years.
The 2006 reauthorization of the Act passed 98-0 in the Senate, 390-33 in the House, and was signed by President George W. Bush. Given the partisan gridlock that infects all aspects of governance in Washington DC, a 98-0 and 390-33 vote shows the true bipartisan nature – at least then – of the Voting Rights Act.
It’s amazing how that calculus apparently changed once a Democrat lived in the White House.
In the Shelby County decision, five Supreme Court justices were able to ignore that bipartisan support and pretend that deliberate and blatant attempts to disenfranchise people of color at the ballot box do not exist.
The protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act are still vitally important to defending Texans’ right to vote. In August of last year, the National Commission on Voting Rights released a comprehensive national review of voter discrimination over the previous 18 years. It found that Texas was by far the worst offender. Over that period, the commission identified 171 lawsuits that showed discrimination and 113 preclearance denials of attempted changes in voting laws. Texas was far ahead of the pack in both areas, with 82 of the discrimination lawsuits and 22 of the preclearance denials.
These are ongoing, long-term battles with little prospect of early resolution.
Since Shelby County, Texas and other states previously covered by the preclearance requirement have implemented discriminatory measures that are infringing on voter rights. Instead of the poll taxes and literacy tests of yesteryear, states now use controversial voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts to suppress the vote.
A federal court ruled last October that Texas’ voter ID law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” Texas’ redistricting plan passed in 2011 were voided by federal courts after they ruled the maps violated the rights of minority voters. In fact, Texas was the only state in the country that adopted redistricting plans following the 2010 Census that were ruled to be discriminatory against African American and Latino voters.
So the fight continues.
We must honor and fulfill the sacrifice of the men and women of our past, those who paved the way for generations to live the promise of this state and nation. Steps backward dishonor their memory and ignore the blood and tears shed in the pursuit of liberty.
Earlier this week, I filed Senate Bill 990, a far-reaching and omnibus bill to improve and protect voting rights in Texas. For too long, the constitutional right to vote has been subject to partisan efforts that make it more difficult for your voice to be heard in the ballot box. The reforms laid out in SB 990 will eliminate unnecessary barriers to our constitutional right, while also securing the integrity of the vote. My bill does the following:
- Criminalizes Deceptive Election Practices: Defines deceptive or disenfranchising actions, and sets related punishments in the Election Code. These actions include unlawfully restricting a person’s right to vote and removing the name of an eligible voter from the list of registered voters. This enshrines your right to vote freely and without undue influence from anyone, which before was not fully prevented.
- Same-day Voter Registration: Allows qualified citizens to register to vote at a polling place on election day. This will allow otherwise eligible voters to register and vote on election day.
- Youth Preregistration for Voting: Allows a person to preregister to vote on or after the person’s 16th birthday. Engaging young people to vote, who turn out in small numbers, can be made easier if they are registered when they get their first driver’s license.
- “No Excuse” Absentee Voting: Allows all qualified voters to early vote by mail during the early voting period. This is commonly referred to as “No Excuse” Absentee Voting. This provision will give all people easier access to voting, regardless of their mobility.
- Election Interpreters: Clarifies that a person can bring anyone of their choosing to serve as an interpreter while voting. If the local county has to provide an interpreter, they must be registered in that specific county or in an adjacent county. This would give flexibility to counties that don’t have enough interpreters and greater access to interpreters for non-English speakers.
- Statewide Volunteer Deputy Registrar: Grants Deputy Registrars the ability to operate within any county of the state, regardless of where they were appointed. Current law limits Deputy Registrars to only registering voters in counties they are appointed, greatly limiting their ability to register voters at events that draw crowds from across the state.
- Election Day as State Holiday: Establishes general and primary statewide elections as state holidays. It isn’t fair that working Texans have to either use their lunch break or wait until their shift is over to exercise their democratic rights, and this would fix that.
- Election Day Law Enforcement: Expands enforceable action against poll workers to include any violation of the Election Code. A fair and open election process can be more easily ensured if poll workers abide by the rules.
- Voter Registration Receipt: Requires that a voter registration confirmation receipt be given to applicants. This receipt must include the applicant’s and agent’s name, and the date of the registration application. A voter registration receipt would give proof to Texans who might not get their voter registration cards because of relocation or technical problems.
I know that it will be an uphill battle to pass these policies, but I owe it to those who sacrificed so much in previous generations to fight for these common sense election reforms.
I hope you will join me and advocate for common sense reforms to our state’s election laws. Our state, nation, and democracy are stronger when all of our voices – regardless of race, gender, or economic status – are included in political dialogue. Eliminating unnecessary barriers to the vote ensures that public servants like myself are accountable to all Texans’ priorities: education, infrastructure investment, and an economy that works for all Texas families, not just a select few.