On March 7, 1965, 600 activists, including John Lewis, set out to march from Selma, Ala., to the state capitol in Montgomery to draw attention to the need for African-Americans to have full voting rights. Alabama State Troopers met the group at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and told them to turn back. When they refused, troopers beat the activists unmercifully and TV cameras captured the entire event. As it was broadcast across the nation, the horrific day of violence was dubbed Bloody Sunday. The nation's reaction to the brutality of that event led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today, Eric Cantor, Johnny Isakson, John Lewis, Steny Hoyer and other members of Congress will join tens of thousands of others in Selma to commemorate Bloody Sunday by marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case brought by Shelby County, Ala., seeking to repeal Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act which applies specifically to several states in the South. The timing seems ironic, doesn't it?
In 2006 Rep. Cantor joined Reps. Hoyer, Lewis and 387 other members of the House to overwhelmingly reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with no changes to Section 5. Senator Isakson joined 97 of his Senate colleagues to pass the same reauthorization in the Senate. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush on July 27, 2006.
Less than eight years after a bipartisan super majority of Congress acted to reauthorize this critical legislation, the Supreme Court could rule to overturn Section 5 of the law and change politics in the South in ways that many would never imagine.
The real benefits of Section 5 are seen at the local level. Presidential campaigns have enough resources and organization to fight the potential disenfranchisement of their voters. The same can be said of most statewide and federal campaigns.
The same is not typically true for campaigns for city council or county commission or General Assembly. Those campaigns most often do not have big budgets or professional political operatives. So factors such as when the vote is scheduled to take place and where voting precincts are located have an outsized effect on those elections. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act levels the playing field in these instances. This past December, Section 5 was used to prevent Augusta from moving its city elections from November to July. The same fight is currently playing out in newly consolidated Macon. Section 5 is not just applicable to the issues of the past. It is relevant right now.
A few years ago, I took my daughter to Selma to commemorate Bloody Sunday. We marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and talked about what happened there. On the way home, she said, "Daddy, I am glad it's not like that now." I agreed. There is no doubt that things are better in the South.
But the struggle does continue. Section 5 is a tool in that struggle, and now is not the time to take it off the table.
Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.