The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
The movie Selma, which was mostly overlooked by members of the Oscar-awarding academy, is about the 1965 protests in Alabama led by Martin Luther King Jr. and aimed at securing unfettered access to the ballot for black Americans. The movie captures a tense, violent, depressing and inspiring moment in U.S. history — a moment that remarkably lingers still.
The main political drama of the Selma protests centered on whether President Johnson would step in and defend the protesters against repressive local authorities and use his political capital to pass into law new real protections and guarantees for the southern black population which, although legally entitled to vote, had been disenfranchised for a century through not-very-subtle Jim Crow roadblocks — like impromptu impossible political quizzes, required voter-endorsement, poll taxes, and so on.
The protests were a success, for a time. Johnson bit the bullet, risking political backlash and the ire of southern legislators to push forward the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. In hearings leading up the drafting of the bill, lawmakers conceded that existing anti-discrimination laws had been ineffectual, that Justice Department efforts over the course of decades targeting discriminatory election practices on a case-by-case basis were a failure. As the Department’s Civil Rights Division explains: “As soon as one discriminatory practice or procedure was proven to be unconstitutional and enjoined, a new one would be substituted in its place and litigation would have to commence anew.”
The Voting Rights Act put an end to literacy tests and poll taxes, saw millions of minority voters successfully register to vote, and forced states with records of voting discrimination to clear any new electoral rules or laws with the federal government. In the years since the Act passed, the Justice Department blocked more than a thousand discriminatory voting proposals. The result has been government bodies that look a lot more like the populations they are supposed to represent.
But in the Obama years, as greater blocs of minority voters exercise increased electoral power, Republican officials have targeted voting rights with the kind of zeal not seen since the era of Martin Luther King.
In 2013, the civil rights Advancement Project looked at what was happening around the states and reported that 180 “restrictive” bills had been introduced in 41 states in 2012 and that new strict polling-place voter ID laws had been proposed in 38 states.
Then, last year, the 1965 Voting Rights Act itself — that blood-sweat-and-tear-stained legislation rightly held up by proud Americans as a mark of the nation’s commitment to progress — came under successful attack. In response to southern state lawsuits, the conservative Supreme Court astonishingly ruled that some of the key protections provided by the Act were no longer needed. The result was as sad as it was predictable.
John Lewis marched in Selma in 1965 and was assaulted by police. He was also in 2010 allegedly the object of racial epithets hurled upon him and other members of the Black Caucus by Tea Party protesters on Capitol Hill.
Police are still shooting and choking to death unarmed black Americans — in Ferguson and Staten Island and at the Denver jail and elsewhere — and enjoying the benefits of a system that is still stacked against holding officers responsible for their actions.
Today is Martin Luther King Day. Every day is Martin Luther King Day.
Correction: An earlier version of this post reported that Rep. John Lewis was allegedly spat upon by Tea Party protesters. He was not. That was his colleague, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, who was spat upon during the same protest in which the tea partiers hurled racial insults at Lewis and others. Cleaver that year became chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
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