Old battles have become new again

Published 9:31 pm Thursday, March 9, 2017

By Terri Sewell
Congresswoman Sewell is the U.S. Representative for Alabama’s 7th congressional district. 

History is never stagnant. The saga of American democracy and the battle for the right to vote has its moments of inspiration, just as it has moments of defeat. The story this year’s chapter will tell is in our hands.

Fifty-two years ago, 600 marchers in Selma brought the reality of racism and segregation into living rooms nationwide.

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That day, hundreds of voting rights supporters were viciously beaten by state troopers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The brutal stories of Bloody Sunday reframed the issue of racism for the American public and ultimately led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), our nation’s most powerful tool for protecting the vote.

But the story of America’s fight for fair elections is never finished. After 48 years of bipartisan support from Congress and the White House, the VRA was gutted by the Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, eliminating key protections for minority voters.

On the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015, our nation had an opportunity to undo that damage. That year, I joined President Obama, President Bush and a bipartisan group of more than 100 members of Congress in Selma to commemorate the voting rights movement. It was an atmosphere of hope and unity in opposition to the hate and racism of our country’s past. Yet we returned to Washington, and Congress did nothing to restore the VRA.

Today’s anniversary of Bloody Sunday is another opportunity to recommit to protecting voting rights for all Americans, but it is also a moment to reflect on the fresh urgency of that work. Old battles have become new again.

This year’s commemoration of Bloody Sunday comes on the heels of the announcement that the Justice Department would drop challenges to a discriminatory Texas voter ID law, even after that law was struck down twice by courts for undermining minority voting rights. This year’s commemoration was also set against the backdrop of an executive order barring immigrants from Muslim-majority countries from coming into the United States.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. completed his Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, after multiple attempts blocked by the police, he spoke to a crowd of nearly 50,000 supporters. In his speech, he told his audience that “no tide of racism can stop us.”

This year I find those words have new resonance. Perhaps Dr. King was right – maybe hate is a tide: one that rolls in and out.

This year, we face a rising tide of intolerance that’s had an immeasurable impact on my community. Last week, a bomb threat was called into a Birmingham Jewish community center in my district, the third threat in just one month’s time. I received messages from families who attend the center and were frightened for their safety and hurt by the threats against them.

I’ve received messages from Muslim constituents who have family abroad, afraid that a travel ban will block them from seeing their loved ones. I’ve met with constituents worried for undocumented members of their community living in the United States.

Looking back at photos from Bloody Sunday, the fear and pain that I see in the eyes of those who marched does not seem so foreign. I recognize the hurt of a people assaulted, threatened and excluded because of who they are.

But I also see courage. When I look at pictures of marchers like Amelia Boynton Robinson, I see a black woman who stood up to hate wherever she encountered it.

This year, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches do not seem like a thing of the past, but instead a model for our work. We have to act as those in the voting rights movement did, and stand together for the rights of all Americans.

I am a direct beneficiary of the movement. I was born the year that the Selma to Montgomery marches took place, and I owe those who fought, bled and died a debt of gratitude that I can never repay. But their story, and the story of America’s voting rights movement, is never finished.

When Americans today suffer from some of the same injustices suffered 52 years ago, we cannot ignore the work left to be done.

If the brutal stories of Bloody Sunday teach us anything this year, it’s that we must not only remember, but also dedicate ourselves to action. Together, we have a tide to turn back.