In Selma, Ala., on Sunday, I joined thousands of citizens marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, marking the 47th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the 1965 march and police riot that helped spark the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The march was not a memory to the past, but a protest of the present. In Alabama, conservatives are moving once more to suppress the vote, part of a concerted effort across the country to make it harder for the poor, the elderly and minorities to vote.
Alabama’s voter ID law will require citizens to present photo identification at the polls. An Alabama immigration law requires police to determine citizenship status during traffic stops, essentially exposing Latino citizens and non-citizens to constant harassment.
Photo ID laws have been introduced or passed in at least 15 states. They discriminate against those who don’t have driver’s licenses — disproportionately poor, elderly and minorities. Nationally they could disenfranchise about 5 million voters. Several states are also pushing legislation to restrict voter registration and to limit early voting.
The current drive is the greatest insult to the Voting Rights Act since it was passed 47 years ago.
Republicans argue that the voting laws are needed to counter fraudulent voting. But they have produced zero evidence of organized efforts to tip elections with fraudulent voters. The laws, as noted by the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the march organizers, are a “solution looking for a problem.”
On Bloody Sunday 47 years ago, Americans saw nonviolent African-American protesters brutalized in a police riot. The nation’s conscience was touched and Washington responded, as President Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act.
Protests against current efforts to suppress the vote have only just begun. But they will build — and they will once more pose a moral challenge to America.
Will Americans reward a party that is systematically seeking to make it harder to vote? Will they accept routine harassment of minorities because of their fears about immigration? Will the politics of division once more be effective?
In the old South, whites feared that they would suffer with the end of segregation. Their privileges would be reduced; their economy would be upended. In fact, the civil rights movement’s victories opened the South to a new prosperity. Investment flowed in. Companies that would have not gone into a segregated South moved to Atlanta and other cities.
It turned out that to hold African Americans in a ditch, whites had to stay down there with them. The end of segregation, the passage of voting rights, created new opportunity for all.
But the old South did not die. The modern Republican Party was built on its infamous Southern strategy, appealing to whites in reaction to the passage of the civil rights laws. Now that strategy, which alienated African-American voters, seems to be replaying itself in the party’s harsh rhetoric and actions about the new wave of immigrants. The result may well alienate Latino and Asian-American voters.
Worse, it means that one of America’s two major parties is increasingly devoted to finding ways to limit the vote rather than expand it. In fact, what we ought to have is a competition on how to ensure that every citizen can cast his or her vote easily. Automatic registration on birth, early voting, extended voting days, polls that are open on weekends and before and after work days — we should be having a competition on how to increase the vote, not on how to suppress it.
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.