This year’s commemoration of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March will be taking place not in Selma but online, as a result of COVID-19. While it is unfortunate that the event will be virtual, what saddens me most is that the commemoration will be missing John Lewis. But the story of the march is not just about the past. As Lewis made clear in comments before his death last year, we should see Selma as part of an ongoing voting-rights struggle.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, Lewis and 600 marchers were beaten by Alabama state troopers and a sheriff’s posse as they carried out a voting rights protest. On Tuesday, March 9, Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Selma in the wake of Bloody Sunday, led 1,000 demonstrators in a protest that ended nonviolently when King obeyed state troopers’ orders to turn around. Like many others, I decided to join the third Selma march, on Sunday, March 21, after seeing footage of the violence against Lewis and his co-marchers on television. King and over 3,000 of us started out to walk from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. Prominent figures such as Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche and Rabbi Abraham Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary joined King, Lewis, and others in the lead.
Three people were killed in relation to the Selma protests, and their diversity reflects the breadth of the protests. Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose murder at the hands of state troopers after a smaller march in February catalyzed the action on Bloody Sunday, was a young, Black church deacon from Alabama. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, was attacked by a group of white men who were acquitted by an all-white jury. Viola Liuzzo, who was white, was a member of the Detroit NAACP. She was shot and killed by an undercover FBI informant embedded with Ku Klux Klan members.
After King’s assassination in 1968, Lewis became the living embodiment of the Selma march. My own memories of the march grow more intense each year as its anniversary approaches—Andrew Young, future mayor of Atlanta and UN ambassador, lining us up in the early morning cold; the kindness of the Selma family that took me in the night before the march and gave me a place to sleep. Yet nobody recognized more clearly than Lewis that the time has come for the leadership of the civil rights movement to pass to those who were not there in 1965 rather than those of us who were. The best commemoration of Selma today is the ongoing fight to defend voting rights.
We can honor the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but we cannot afford to dwell on it for too long. We have to face the fact that the work it started is unfinished. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the Selma marches were instrumental in getting passed, is under increasing assault, particularly since the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder gave states and localities with a history of voting rights discrimination free rein to change their laws without preclearance from the Justice Department. And just this past week, the conservative-majority Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee and Arizona Republican Party v. DNC. The court’s decision on the case later this year could further erode the Voting Rights Act.
In a report published this January, the Brennan Center for Justice found that since the 2020 general election twenty-eight states introduced, pre-filed, or carried over 106 restrictive voting bills. It’s a marked increase from early February 2020, when there were thirty-five such bills in fifteen states.
With Democrats now in control of Congress, there is potential for good news on this front—if they are willing to end the supermajority voting requirement for passing legislation in the Senate. The For the People Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives on January 4 as H.R. 1 and which will be introduced as S.1 in the Senate, offers hope for combatting voter suppression. The bill, passed just this week in the House by a 220-to-210 margin, would require states to provide automatic voter registration for federal elections when eligible citizens give information to a government agency such as a Department of Motor Vehicles, offer same-day registration for voting, expand opportunities to vote by mail, and extend at least two weeks of early voting, including weekends.
Shortly before his death, Lewis paid a visit to the Black Lives Matter street mural in Washington, D.C., accompanied by the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser. He expressed his support for the movement on CBS This Morning: “It was very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble.’” The Black Lives Matter marches are carrying the civil rights movement into the future.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.