This weekend, I will be in Selma, Alabama, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge along with thousands of others to commemorate a key moment in our history. It was there that, exactly 50 years ago, through the fog of tear gas, the world was given a brief glimpse of the state-sanctioned brutality and intimidation that kept many black Americans powerless in the American South a full century after the abolition of slavery.
As forcefully portrayed in last year’s movie, “Selma,” the demonstrations leading up to and including the march to the capitol building in Montgomery were intended in large part to pressure Congress to pass voting rights legislation with robust enforcement mechanisms to prevent state and local officials in Alabama and elsewhere from placing barrier after barrier in front of the ballot box: literacy tests, poll taxes, vouching requirements, the publishing of registrants’ names in newspapers — thus enabling employer retaliation — and many more. Together with outright intimidation and violence, such practices resulted in a voter registration rate among black Alabamans in 1965 that was less than 20 percent, 50 points lower than the registration rate among white Alabamans. The dramatic efforts of those who went to Selma to draw the nation’s attention to such practices resulted, just five months later, in the Voting Rights Act being signed into law with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Because of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and especially Section 5, its core provision requiring the worst offenders to obtain federal approval before changing their voting practices, the worst voter suppression tactics have been eliminated and the registration and turnout gap between white and Black Americans has largely disappeared.
Yet, significant problems remain. Too many politicians continue to manipulate the rules in ways that ensure the poor, the young, and racial minorities have a needlessly difficult time getting registered and voting a ballot that will count. No doubt, many of the restrictions harm voters who are poor, regardless of their race. But a history of discrimination in areas such as housing, education, and criminal justice — that in many places continues to this day — has preserved and compounded a large wealth gap along racial lines such that racial minorities are disproportionately affected.
That wealth gap was in part what was on trial last September in Corpus Christi, Texas, when various witnesses described to a federal court the impact of the state’s photo ID law on them, their families, and their communities. One witness — an elderly black woman and lifelong voter who remembered counting out her grandmother’s poll tax as a child in Mississippi — spoke of needing to divert money for several months, money she would have otherwise used for family necessities, to obtain the underlying documents required to get a valid photo ID. Another witness who worked for a religious charity that helps impoverished individuals recover their ID described the arduous and costly journeys many of her mostly black and Latino clients face in obtaining the information, money, transportation, and time off work needed to get ID.
But for every individual who decided to tell their story in federal court, there are thousands more who were unable or reluctant — sometimes out of embarrassment or fear — to do so.
In my own travels and research in south Texas, I encountered voters who were turned away from the polls because they had only student IDs, voters who were ashamed of not possessing their birth certificate or not having the funds and transportation to easily recover it, voters who were unable to vote with their expired ID, even though it was good enough to establish their identity in every other facet of their life, and voters with unpaid tickets fearful of the office that issues Texas state ID (which doubles as a law enforcement agency). Most common of all, I met voters who had never heard of the law and did not understand its requirements or know whether they met them. Where this happened, I tried to spread information about the law that had not yet reached those who most needed it.
One such place was an old schoolhouse-turned-church in a small town halfway between San Antonio and Laredo called Cotulla, where I gave a brief presentation to the congregation. As I was leaving the brick church, I noticed a small plaque near the front door that read, “President Lyndon Baines Johnson Taught Here in 1928–1929.” It was fitting and fortuitous that I had unwittingly given a voting rights presentation in the same building where the man who signed the Voting Rights Act into law once taught schoolchildren on the Hispanic side of the railroad tracks in the highly-segregated town, an experience about which he later remarked, “I had my first lessons in the high price we pay for poverty and prejudice right here.”
The lessons imparted on a young LBJ in Cotulla clearly influenced his later support of anti-poverty programs and civil rights legislation. But it was in Selma where Americans were given their most vivid lesson on the high price of poverty and prejudice that ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
On this 50th anniversary of that campaign, those now gathering in Selma are no doubt wondering whether this Congress will live up to the example set by their predecessors from both parties in 1965 — and those who renewed the Act’s key protections in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006 — and restore the critical voting protections we gained 50 years ago as a result of that movement.