Nearly one-fifth of Congress will be in Selma, Ala., this weekend with President Barack Obama and his family to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march – a watershed moment that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Civil rights groups say the commemoration of this moment in the civil rights movement should spark work in Congress to update the law after the Supreme Court weakened it in 2013. Some congressional supporters say the lawmakers’ pilgrimage could help build support.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, will be one of 98 members of both parties from the House of Representatives and the Senate going to Selma.
“It shows me there’s interest by Republicans to guarantee voting rights for African-Americans,” Butterfield said.
Some Republicans believed there was no longer a need for federal oversight of states’ voting changes. Butterfield said he hoped they’d learn about contemporary stories about voting restrictions during the weekend of events and then be willing to consider updating the law.
Civil rights groups are demanding it.
Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, said in a message to supporters on Thursday that “while we commemorate the anniversary of this great march, we must also remember that our rights are still not secured – Selma is now.” He cited new laws since the Supreme Court decision, such as state ID requirements, that he argued imperiled voting rights.
“Commemoration requires legislation,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of rights groups, said in a statement this week. “Selma isn’t just a photo op. It’s a solemn remembrance of the blood, sweat, tears and lives that went into securing voting rights for racial minorities in this country.”
As portrayed in the movie “Selma,” some 600 peaceful protesters led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis set out that day on a march to Montgomery to call for voting rights in Alabama. Police met them on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and brutally attacked them with clubs, whips and tear gas.
Lewis was bloodied with a blow to his head. Now a longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia, he’ll be in Selma again this weekend. Lewis is co-chair emeritus of the board of The Faith and Politics Institute, the group organizing this weekend’s congressional pilgrimage. Its mission is to encourage reflection and discussion across racial, religious and party lines.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a requirement that nine states and parts of six others obtain Justice Department approval before making election changes that might disproportionately affect minority voting. The court said Congress should update the law.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., an honorary co-chairman of the Selma trip and the only African-American Republican in the Senate, said voting rights and the commemoration of Selma should be “de-coupled.”
“The issue of voting rights legislation and the issue of Selma, we ought to have an experience that brings people together and not make it into a political conversation,” Scott said.
But Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a co-sponsor of a bill last year to repair the Voting Rights Act, said he intends to honor the past and conduct business as he’s walking across Selma’s famous bridge this weekend.
He said he’ll be carrying a draft of a new Senate measure in his pocket and intends to talk about it.
“I’m not going to be haranguing senators, literally, while we are walking,” Coons said. “But the great thing about the civil rights pilgrimage is it gives us several days in several places for reflection and discussion.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who’s also going, didn’t co-sponsor the proposed change last year. But she was disappointed with the Supreme Court decision “and would approach with an open mind any potential legislation to protect voting rights in this country,” said her spokesman, John LaBombard.
And Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., said he was proud to attend the 50th anniversary to honor the civil rights leaders and their legacy.
“We’ve come a long way since 1965, but we must continue to be ever vigilant in our enduring commitment to the civil rights of every American,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced a bill on Feb. 11 that would restore federal oversight for states that have a persistent record of recent voting rights violations. But the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., told reporters in January that he had no plans to bring up the issue, arguing the law already provided protection.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said the Supreme Court ruled “that there’s not sufficient proof now to have a different law for some states than other states.”
“A lot of good people are worried about it. But I think they think it will have far more impact than it will, because the basic strength of the Voting Rights Act remains,” Sessions said.
The Alabama senator will attend the events in Selma, his birthplace, as he’s done other years.
“This is a special time,” he said. “This march was one of the defining moments, because if you don’t have the right to vote, you’re a second-class citizen at best – you’re not even a citizen really.”