SELMA, Ala. (AP) – Speakers at the commemoration Sunday of a key event in African Americans’ fight for voting rights urged Congress to resurrect the requirement that many southern states get federal approval for changes in election laws.
The son of Martin Luther King Jr. said blood spilled on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge helped pave the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But a court case also arising out of Alabama led the U.S. Supreme Court last year to effectively strike down a key provision of the law that requires federal approval for election changes in all or parts of 15 states.
“I’m very concerned because it is ironic that the state that helped to give us so much has temporarily set up a scenario to take it away. That we must change,” Martin Luther King III said in a speech this morning.
Thousands of people gathered in Selma on Sunday to honor the 49th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when civil rights marchers were beaten by law enforcement officers on the city’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Outrage the marchers’ treatment helped galvanize support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Speakers at the annual event put the focus on the Supreme Court’s decision and a slate of new voting laws being enacted in many states, including photo identification requirements.
This was the first commemoration since the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Shelby County’s challenge to the Voting Rights Act. The court struck down the formula used to determine which states were subject to federal preclearance of their election laws. Justices said that the country had changed and that the decades-old formula determining which states would be covered by preclearance was no longer applicable.
Rev. William Barber II, president of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter, said voting rights and desegregation were won by the blood spilled on Selma’s bridge and in the assassination of civil rights leaders.
“Every voting right, every opportunity, every taste of freedom has come through the blood,” Barber said.
Barber criticized a proposal in Congress to write a new preclearance formula, saying it was too narrow. Supporters of the bill have said Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are the only states that fall into the proposed preclearance formula.
“A fix right now that says there’s not enough discrimination in voting in Alabama to make it a preclearance state. South Carolina, where they fly the Confederate flag, they don’t need preclearance,” Barber said.
“We have to say wait a minute, ‘The Voting Rights Act was signed in blood, and when you mess with it because it’s a blood document, it brings us to life,'” Barber said.
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Selma, said it may sound innocuous to make voters show a photo ID, but minorities make up the bulk of people without such identification.
“We recognize those who marched that day – and the millions more who have done their part throughout our nation’s history to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
The day of remembrance concluded with a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and a pause to pray at the top of the span.
Sheyann Webb said she never crosses the bridge without remembering “Bloody Sunday.” Webb was 8 years old when she sneaked away from home to join the marchers on March 7, 1965.
“People being tear-gassed, beat down to ground, horses making their way into the crowd, as well as dogs,” Webb remembered. “People were being treated like dogs and not human beings.”
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