Sunday is the 56th anniversary of the first Selma-to-Montgomery march during the civil rights movement which was led in part by the late civil rights icon Rep. John LewisJohn LewisBiden injects new momentum into filibuster fight Patience with Biden wearing thin among Black leaders Biden, Harris mark 10th anniversary of MLK memorial MORE (D-Ga.).
However, this is the first commemoration of the pivotal civil rights era event known as “Bloody Sunday” without the beloved lawmaker, and comes days after the House passed H.R. 1, legislation aimed at reforming voting rights — an issue Lewis tirelessly fought for during his decades in Congress.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis, who was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and fellow civil rights activist Hosea Williams attempted to lead hundreds of people from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery, roughly 50 miles away, as part of a voting rights campaign.
Despite the Civil Rights Act being signed into law a year earlier, many Black Americans in the South still faced discrimination. In particular, Alabama Gov. George Wallace was staunchly opposed to desegregation.
Lewis and fellow marchers that day were stopped on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by a wall of Alabama state troopers and a mob of white men recruited by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark. The blockade proceeded to fire tear gas and attack the marchers with nightsticks, driving them back across the bridge.
Lewis’s skull was fractured amid the violence, and images of the callous scene were broadcast on national television.
Bloody Sunday sparked two additional marches on the bridge, the first of which was organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on March 9. The last of the marches started on March 21 and ended in Montgomery on March 25.
That August, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which prohibited racial discrimination in voting practices.
Today, Democrats and civil rights leaders view the annual commemoration of Bloody Sunday, dubbed the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, as an essential event in the continued battle for the expansion and protection of voting rights.
“Historically, we do events as anniversaries, and we say we are celebrating. But the fact of the matter is, we're still fighting,” Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of King, told The Hill.
“As we’ve recently seen in state legislatures across this nation, voter suppression is alive and well,” Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellIt's time to make access to quality kidney care accessible and equitable for all Pressure builds on Democratic leadership over HBCU funding Thousands march on Washington in voting rights push MORE (D-Ala.), a Selma native whose congressional district covers the starting point of the 1965 marches, added in a statement.
More than 250 bills in 43 states have been introduced in state legislatures that would restrict voting rights in some capacity, according to a recent Brennan Center for Justice report.
H.R. 1 would nullify many of those state proposals, requiring states to offer mail-in ballots, early voting periods and same-day voter registration. It also would create automatic voter registration and make Election Day a national holiday for federal workers.
Several prominent Democratic lawmakers are slated to speak at the entirely virtual event this year, including Sewell, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSunday shows preview: CDC signs off on 'mix and match' vaccine boosters Buttigieg aims to use Tucker Carlson flap to spotlight paternity leave Judge to hear Trump's case against Jan. 6 committee in November MORE (Calif.), House Democratic Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), and Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerSenate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program Emanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing MORE (N.J.) and Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockWill Trump choose megalomania over country? Senate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents On The Money — Democrats eye tough choices as deadline looms MORE (Ga.).
Clyburn described the commemorative gathering as continuing “to run the race” that Lewis began, and called the passage of H.R. 1 on Wednesday night a “good first step.”
“We got to be steady, we got to stay focused because there are forces — and we see them all around us — that are wishing to turn the clock back,” the No. 3 House Democrat told The Hill.
Lewis died on July 17. He was 80.
Voting rights have become a deeply partisan issue in the past year, in part because of former President TrumpDonald TrumpGrant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE’s unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election that have been repeated by numerous Republicans.
Dozens of lawsuits by Trump and his allies were filed across the country, leading to dismissals by numerous judges, including some Trump appointees.
“Embedded in that argument is the legitimacy of the citizenship of African Americans,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson told The Hill, saying that complaints mostly focused on “jurisdictions where African American voters make up a substantial [percent of the population].”
H.R. 1 isn’t expected to garner enough, if any, GOP support to advance in the Senate, meaning the sweeping reform bill will most likely fall prey to the filibuster.
“Republicans have made a calculation … to be obstructionists to deny victories to Democrats, not because they shouldn't be done, because they want to be partisan,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn and Sewell both noted, however, that the best way to honor Lewis’ legacy would be to get a separate bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, passed later this year.
The legislation, which passed the House in the previous Congress only to gather dust in the GOP-controlled Senate, would establish a new formula for federal preclearance outlined in Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The oversight required states and jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination — largely in the South — to gain approval from the Department of Justice before implementing any change to voting procedures.
But in 2013, the Supreme Court rendered the preclearance moot, while leaving the door open for Congress to develop and pass a new formula.
Clyburn said House Democrats hope to have the new preclearance guidelines ready to be introduced by September.
“Old battles have become new again,” Sewell said. “That is why we must pass H.R. 4, The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, to ensure all Americans can fully participate in our democracy.”