The importance of Selma

by Senator John S. Edwards

Voting is among the most important rights of citizenship because voting is the freedom to govern ourselves. We fought the Revolutionary War over the right of self-government and many died for this fundamental right.

The history of the United States is the march toward full and fair voting rights. When our nation was founded, only white men who owned land could vote. Following the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment granted voting rights to African Americans and former slaves.  The Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920 granted the suffrage to women.

The Fifteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, ensured that no person shall be denied the right to vote on account of his “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” Except for a brief period during reconstruction, the Fifteenth Amendment was not enforced by law for a hundred years following the Civil War. “Jim Crow” laws prevailed for almost a century authorizing numerous ways to prevent African Americans from voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests applied arbitrarily, and plain intimidation.

Finally, in 1965 – a hundred years after the Civil War — the Voting Rights Act was passed by Congress to enforce the rights won as a result of the Civil War.

March 7, 2015, marked the fiftieth anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, a seminal event that lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.   Civil Rights marchers lead by Martin Luther King, Jr., crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where they were beaten by Sheriff’s deputies simply for peacefully marching and expressing their demand for voting rights. Pictures shown on national television and described in the national press rallied the nation to the urgent need of reforming voting rights. The recent movie “Selma” depicts the critical role the events of Selma played in arousing public sentiment.

President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act before Congress and showed his solidarity with the cause by repeating the anthem of the Civil Rights movement, “We shall overcome.”

Almost a hundred years after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, a law was finally passed to enforce the simple words that no person shall be denied the right to vote on account of his “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”  President Obama recently pronounced the historic Voting Rights Act a “crowning achievement” in the march toward full and fair voting rights for all Americans.

Since 1965, progress was made to make the right to vote easier and fairer.  In some states, “motor voter,” same day registration, and early voting laws continue the march of progress.

However, in recent years, the momentum has been reversed.

In Virginia, voter ID laws, provisional voting laws, and now a photo ID law which will go into effect in July, have been passed.  Rather than to encourage voting, these laws seem more designed to discourage voting.

Also, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the pre-clearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, even though this provision has been renewed with strong bipartisan majorities.  Congress should renew the pre-clearance requirements to ensure fair and free voting rights.

Perhaps the most bizarre bill to pass the recent session of the Virginia General Assembly was a bill was to require voters applying by mail for an absentee ballot to include a photo ID.  Registrars have no photo of the voter for comparison so the bill has no useful purpose.  One wonders what the purpose of this legislation could be other than to make it more difficult to obtain an absentee ballot by mail. Yet, it passed on a straight party line vote.  I hope the Governor vetoes this bill.

The recent celebration of the events in Selma fifty years ago which inspired passage of the Voting Rights Act is an important reminder of a major milestone in America’s history.

Now, it is our duty not to reverse the progress they made then, but to advance it and to remember the sacrifices they made as an example for us today.

[The above op-ed was adapted from remarks given by Senator Edwards on March 8, 2015 to a convention of the Virginia Electoral Board Association and the Virginia Voter Registrars Association.]