Forty-Eight Years After Selma: The New Fight for Voting Rights

Photo by Peter Pettus, 1965, via Library of Congress

Forty-eight years ago tomorrow, on March 21, 1965, I was part of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. There were only 3,200 of us who started out from Brown Chapel on that bright Alabama Sunday, but as far as the angry crowds along our march route were concerned, we were an invading army. We had no business protesting the discrimination that kept so many blacks off the Alabama voter rolls.

Two weeks earlier, civil rights protesters, among them future Georgia congressman John Lewis, had started out on the same march route, but they were badly beaten by Alabama state troopers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Among the white Alabamians I saw that afternoon, it was clear most still believed the Alabama state troopers had done the right thing. Their shouts of “white nigger” and the “Coonsville USA” sign I passed early in the march left no room for doubt.

I stayed in Alabama to help prepare the campsites for the following days of the march, which would not reach Montgomery until Thursday, March 25, and during that time none of the hatred I experienced at the opening of the march lessened. But when I returned to Providence, where I was in graduate school at Brown, I nonetheless felt hopeful. The Selma marchers I met, most of whom had simply dropped what they were doing and come south on their own, sent an unmistakable message. We, not the crowds jeering us, spoke for the future. It did not surprise me that in August Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This February, along with a group of historians and social scientists, I have put my name on an amici curiae brief in support of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which is being challenged in a Supreme Court case, Shelby County v. Holder. Today, instead of feeling hopeful as I was in 1965, I am anxious.

This Supreme Court’s conservatives have given every indication that they would like to undo Section 5, which Congress extended for twenty-five years in 2006 with a bipartisan vote of 390 to 33 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate.

Section 5 is so critical because it requires nine states—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—plus numerous counties and municipalities in other states with a history of discrimination to obtain pre-clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court before making any change in their voting laws. Without this pre-clearance requirement, the only remedy for minority voters discriminated against in these state and jurisdictions is to go to court after their rights are violated—often too late to affect the outcome of an election.

At least two of the justices on the Supreme Court already appear to have their minds made up on the constitutionality of Section 5. Justice Antonin Scalia has called Section 5 the “perpetuation of a racial entitlement”; Justice Anthony Kennedy has asked whether Alabama is an “independent sovereign” or must live “under the trusteeship of the United States government.”

Even more worrying, however, is the current Republican strategy of seeking to limit the voting power of minorities who favor the Democratic Party. In recent years Republican state legislatures from Florida to Pennsylvania have sought to reduce the impact of minority voting by passing new voter ID laws, limiting voting hours, and gerrymandering election districts so that black and Hispanic voters within them are a minority. As a result, in 2012, despite receiving 1.4 million fewer votes for Congress than Democrats, Republicans kept control of the House by a 234 to 201 margin.

In 2012 Section 5 rulings limited Republican efforts to reduce minority voting in the key states of Texas and South Carolina, but there is no telling how many politicians in other covered states and districts were discouraged from suppress-the-vote efforts because they knew they faced legal challenges they could not overcome.

I am glad I signed the amici curiae brief I did. I am encouraged that, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, more than two dozen other amici briefs urging the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of Section 5 were filed for Shelby County v. Holder. But I don’t tell myself such briefs are going to have a big impact on this court’s conservative justices. The only reassuring news I see these days is that so many minority voters are as determined as they were in the 1960s to make their votes count.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964, The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.