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Civil Rights celebration holds deep meaning for Jones

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-AL, will be the keynote speaker at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m. for the 6th Annual Courageous Free Thinkers Celebration.

The Senator said he would also be part of other Jubilee commemorations happening about the Queen City this weekend, but was unsure how many events he’d be able to attend – Jones has a busy schedule ahead of Super Tuesday, which falls March 3, just two days after the climactic Jubilee Bridge Crossing, in which thousands of people will walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in remembrance of Bloody Sunday and the subsequent Marches that led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Jones himself became a part of the Civil Rights Movement when, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he was able to bring to justice two of the men responsible for the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which resulted in the deaths of four young girls.

“I think that Jubilee and the Bridge Crossing is so meaningful for Alabama and for the country because it is not only part of a history that has to be remembered for the sacrifices and all that occurred there, but it is also a reminder of where we need to be going in the future,” said Jones. “I think any time that we can keep events like that at the forefront and commemorate them the way we do is especially important to keep dreams alive for generations to come.”

While reflecting on the sacrifices made by those who participated in Bloody Sunday and the ensuing events of the Voting Rights Movement, Jones elaborated on the obstacles some voters still face today.

“They are getting more and more pronounced, unfortunately,” he said. “It’s not as much about registration as it was in those days when you had a poll tax or an impossible literacy test that you had to pass when you went to register. It’s easy to register, you can go online, in Alabama, and register to vote. But the biggest challenge is actually getting to the polling place and casting that vote.”

Jones said the Alabama Legislature has placed a lot of restrictions on voters in the form of voter identification (ID) laws, the purging of voter rolls and the closing of polling places to make it more difficult to get to polling locations.

Jones said the latter restriction is particularly hard on rural voters where lack of transportation is another hurdle in and of itself.

“Alabama refuses to try to do anything that makes it easier for people to vote,” he said. “They seem to want to make it as difficult as possible and as narrow as possible, only in that window between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on a certain Tuesday.”

The senator suggested early voting as an answer to some of these hurdles.

“I think early voting would really help,” Jones said. “I think that that is so important. We’ve got more and more people working. People work on Tuesdays and can’t get off when they need to get off and when they can they’re only off for a limited time. You also don’t know how long lines are going to be and people that go later in the day could have to wait for hours.”

Jones said he believes that early voting could increase voter participation in Alabama drastically.

“There are ways it could be done efficiently and economically, but the important thing is it would raise the level of voting,” said the senator. “Unfortunately, I think there are people in Montgomery who do not want to do that. They don’t want to make it easier to vote, they want to make it harder.”

Jones believes clearer parameters over purging voter rolls must also be set.

“There’s a lot of ways to keep voter rolls up to date these days,” he said. “I’m all for the voter rolls being as clean and up to date as possible, but the wholesale purging of voters based on arbitrary criteria I think isn’t a good idea…We have got to give people more credit. We haven’t seen voter fraud problems in Alabama in 30 or 40 years and we need to recognize that most people want to do the right thing and they certainly just want to get out to vote.”

Jones has been a part of recent legislation to preserve the rights of voters in the form of the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act was designed to address the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, which nullified a section of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required locales with a history of racial discrimination to justify any changes made to voting laws to the U.S, Justice Department or the D.C. federal court and established a formula by which such locations could be identified.

As a carrier of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, Jones said he is attempting to “put teeth back into the Voting Rights Act”.

While this weekend’s festivities will be a celebration of those who sacrificed to make the Voting Rights Act of 1965 possible, Jones said he hopes that in the future people will flock to Selma throughout the year, not just the “first couple of weekends in March.”

“We’ve got to continue to push the Civil Rights Trail, push Alabama’s heritage and push Selma’s heritage,” said the Senator. “We need to have more people coming to Selma on a year-round basis and not just these first couple of weekends in March. That’s a goal I’ve got and we’re going to help Selma work on that.”