The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

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.

As The Nation reported:

Since the ruling, six Southern states previously covered under Section 4 have passed or implemented new voting restrictions, with North Carolina recently passing the country’s worst voter suppression law. The latest assault on the franchise comes on the heels of a presidential election in which voter suppression attempts played a starring role, with 180 bills introduced in forty-one states to restrict access to the ballot in 2011–12, which NAACP President Ben Jealous called “the greatest attacks on voting rights since segregation.” The broad scope of contemporary voting discrimination is why John Lewis testified before Congress last month that “the Voting Rights Act is needed now like never before.”

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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About the Author

John Tomasic

Writer, editor, teacher, web wrangler. He has worked for art, business, culture, politics publications, five universities and a UN war crimes commission. @johntomasic | 720-432-2128 |


  1. Don Lopez on said:

    Never let it be said that the Colorado Independent allowed the truth to interfere with a good segue.

    “John Lewis marched in Selma in 1965 and was assaulted by police. He was also in 2010 allegedly spit upon by Tea Party protesters on Capitol Hill.”

    That paragraph was the lead-in to the article’s penultimate paragraph where Mr. Tomasic’s compassion reached a crescendo and where he was again able to demonstrate his disdain for law enforcement officers.

    The only problem with that paragraph is the last sentence isn’t true.

    John Lewis was NOT “allegedly spit upon by Tea Party protesters on Capitol Hill” in 2010 and had Mr. Tomasic bothered to read the Washington Post article he referenced he would have known that.

    Here’s what the Post article reported:

    “Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) issued a statement late Saturday saying that he was spit upon while walking to the Capitol to cast a vote, leading the Capitol Police to usher him into the building out of concern for his safety. Police detained the individual, who was then released because Cleaver declined to press charges.”

    Keep in mind that the Colorado Independent’s Mission statement reads, in part: “The only bias we have is for good journalism. We take the role of journalism as a public trust very seriously.”

    Really? So this is what good journalism being taken seriously looks like? It’s more than a little difficult to accept that Mission Statement when the managing editor of the Colorado Independent can make such a, well, “careless” error.

    Will the CI print a correction or an apology or a retraction? Please.

  2. Don Lopez on said:

    You’re welcome!

    And while we’re on the subject of journalism it’s interesting to note that while Mr. Tomasic identifies as members of the Tea Party those allegedly responsible for spitting on Congressional representatives the article he references does not.

    To be fair to Mr. Tomasic, the headline to the referenced article (Washington Post, March 20, 2010, Paul Kane) does read “’Tea party’ protesters accused of spitting on lawmaker, using slurs” but the body of the article does not identify the protesters as members of any political party or group.

    Proving, I guess, two things: first, whoever wrote the headline didn’t read the article either and second, Colorado Independent “research” does not extend beyond the headline.

    At this point it would appear the only thing the Colorado Independent Mission statement needs now is a laugh track.

  3. John Tomasic on said:

    Mr. Lopez, the incidents took place during a widely reported Tea Party protest on Capitol Hill. No one, not even apologist Sean Hannity, argued that point. I think it’s clear that it’s the racially charged nature of the protest that matters. Decades after Selma, whether the protesters were spitting saliva or the word “nigger” matters less to most of us than the fact that what they were doing demonstrates the ease with which some Americans can still slide into grotesque racist politics meant to convey a message of who they think really (still) holds power in the USA.

  4. Don Lopez on said:

    Mr. Tomasic,

    The fact that you would like those allegedly guilty of spitting and shouting slurs at members of the CBC to be Tea Party members doesn’t make it so.

    The fact that these alleged incidents took place during what you describe as a “widely reported Tea Party protest” does mean they were committed by Tea Party members.

    The fact that you didn’t challenge my assertion that the article you referenced (Washington Post, March 20, 2010, Paul Kane) does not identify the protesters as members of any political party or group strongly suggests the Washington Post does take journalism seriously.

    And if “whether the protesters were spitting saliva or the word “nigger” matters less to most of us” then why bring it up?

    And why wasn’t it reported that Rep. Emanuel Cleaver declined to press charges against the individual who allegedly spit on him?

    If the Colorado Independent wants to play the race card, please be my guest, but don’t hide behind some grotesquely twisted Mission statement which risibly suggests “The only bias we have is for good journalism. We take the role of journalism as a public trust very seriously.” It sounds like something straight out of The Onion.

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