2013 Selma Marchers Remind Justices Of Voting Rights Act

Mar 4, 2013
Originally published on March 4, 2013 1:02 pm
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Selma, Alabama yesterday saw a reenactment of what's known as Bloody Sunday. Thousands of people including members of Congress and Vice President Joseph Biden marched across a bridge there, the same bridge civil rights protesters attempted to cross in 1965, as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, and were quickly met by police billy clubs and teargas. Back then, Bloody Sunday galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act. The commemoration is an annual event, but this year it comes just days after the U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to a portion of that law.

Andrew Yeager from member station WBHM was at yesterday's march.

ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: About a block away from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where police and marchers clashed 48 years ago, Selma native Will Harris stands along the street. He's excited. It's the 25th time he's been here. A camera hangs from his neck ready to capture the day's festivities.

WILL HARRIS: It's just remarkable, man. It's just a feeling you can't get over. Especially when you're like in a building upstairs and you look out and can see thousands and thousands of people. And you're like, this is in my city.

YEAGER: The annual reenactment may hearken back to the past, but its spirit is very much of the present. Last week, justices heard a challenge brought by an Alabama county over part of the Voting Rights Act. It's a provision which requires some states, mostly in the South, to get permission from the Justice Department before making changes to voting regulations. Alabama officials argue that section is cumbersome and no longer necessary.

Questions asked by the court's conservative justices led some observers to suggest this part of the Voting Rights Act could be struck down. In Selma, the Supreme Court is front of mind, as speaker after speaker alludes to the case.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson uses it to rally the crowd.

REVEREND JESSE JACKSON: I must vote. The Supreme Court can't take it. If they try, we'll fight back.

YEAGER: Proponents of the law say voting rights still need to be protected. Gwendolyn Ferreti, with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, says some county registrars in the state are asking extra, unnecessary questions of naturalized citizens when registering. Latino voters are viewed with suspicion.

GWENDOLYN FERRETI: This is something that we shouldn't be doing. We shouldn't be limiting people's access to vote. We should be trying to encourage as many people who are eligible to vote to do so.

MARCHERS: (Singing) Going to let nobody turn me 'round, oh, turn me 'round, oh, turn me 'round. Going to let nobody...

YEAGER: Marchers sing familiar anthems of the Civil Rights Movement, their voices bumping up against the roar of police motorcycles. This time, police clear the way for the marchers as they stream onto the bridge. Some are small children carried by parents. Others return to the spot where they were bloodied 48 years ago. The songs keep coming.

MARCHERS: (Singing) This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine...

YEAGER: The weight of this event isn't lost on Justin Dunn. He's a student at Valparaiso University in Indiana, here on a school trip.

JUSTIN DUNN: Walking across it was really powerful. We've had a lot of sessions where we talked about what happened here on Bloody Sunday, so that made it a lot more intense. You know, this has been a great experience.

YEAGER: Carolyn Doyle King's experience as a student at this bridge is different. She wears a homemade sign over her shoulders held together by pink ribbon. It declares: Foot Soldier, I was here in 1965. She is not happy the Voting Rights Act is under scrutiny by the courts.

CAROLYN DOYLE KING: We can't do that. We can't go back. It shouldn't even be a question of taking back any of that. We should be pushing forward and pushing ahead.

YEAGER: Not surprisingly, her viewpoint is echoed often among those gathered in Selma. However, the future of the Voting Rights Act will be determined far away from here, by the nine men and women of the U.S. Supreme Court.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.