Civil Rights Pioneers Receive Congressional Medal for 1965 Selma March, But Restoring Voting Rights for Black People Would Have Been a Better Honor


Everyone loves civil rights commemorations, because it requires no commitment to anything in particular and makes for a good public relations photo opportunity.  White Southern conservatives in the Republican Party — who, like their Dixiecrat predecessors are doing whatever they can to thwart the voting rights of Black people — can pretend to honor a bloody civil rights movement that created martyrs, even as they enact voter ID laws and fail to restore the Voting Rights Act.  This is how white supremacy operates, and they hope no one is taking notice.

On Wednesday, civil rights leaders who marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 were presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the most prestigious civilian award given by the federal legislature.  That historic march led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Writing for The Nation, Ari Berman reminds us of the course of events in the Selma movement that made passage of the Voting Rights Act possible.   As Rev. C.T. Vivian was leading a dangerous nighttime protest against the arrest of civil rights activist James Orange in Perry, Alabama, state troopers were ordered to attack the peaceful protesters.  A trooper shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year old deacon who attempted to register to vote five times in that county, where only 265 of 5,202 eligible African-Americans were on the voting rolls.

Reverend Frederick D. Reese, one of the organizers of the march, accepted the award, as The Guardian reported.

“I am certainly honored to be able to stand here and look into such beautiful faces and recall how good God has been, because he is a good God,” said Reese. “He brought us from nowhere to somewhere, allowed us to receive the great blessing that this great nation has to offer, and to stand here today to say, ‘Thank you!’ ”

As happy as Reese was, others felt differently.

“The Congress that wants to honor us won’t get its act together to restore what we’ve lost, what we worked so hard for,” said Reverend Vivian in a statement from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We won’t allow our legacy to be neutered and relegated to the museums. A medal will not mollify us. The way to truly honor our sacrifice is to fully restore the Voting Rights Act.”

“The men and women of Selma did not march for medals, you marched to demand action,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.). “If we really truly value the legacy of the foot soldiers, we must come together, Democrats and Republicans must come together, and pass a renewed and strengthened voting rights act without any further delay.”

“Gold medals are great — I think it’s long overdue and much deserved that the foot soldiers are going to finally get their place in history,” Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Selma told The Nation, “but the biggest tribute that we can give to those foot soldiers is fully restoring the Voting Rights Act.”

The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, which Rev. Vivian said was akin to “being beaten all over again.”  Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Act, and as The Nation notes, this is the first presidential election without the full voting protections of the law.  Since 2012, 16 states have enacted new voting restrictions, including a number of jurisdictions that had to seek approval from the federal government for any voting changes, such as Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Alabama dealt a blow to civil rights groups who were challenging Alabama’s 2011 photo voter ID law.  As Talking Points Memo reported, the law was under scrutiny when the state closed dozens of DMV offices in Black communities last year.  The Alabama NAACP and other groups asked the federal government to block the “positively identify” provision of the law, which says that if a voter does not have the appropriate photo ID, two poll officials can, through an affidavit, confirm their identity.  But those who challenge the law argue that it smacks of Jim Crow voucher tests.  Nonetheless, a federal judge refused the civil rights groups’ request as the March primary election approaches.  U.S. District Judge L. Scott Coogler — a President George W. Bush appointee — offered that the request was “a backdoor method of invalidating” the law.

Like the Southern segregationists of the Jim Crow era who blocked voting rights for African-Americans, today’s white conservatives in the Republican Party have absolutely no interest in new voting rights legislation that could potentially put them out of a job.  America is becoming Blacker and Browner, and one of these days, people of color will become a majority, posing a threat to white supremacy.  However, white nationalists in the Republican Party — catering solely to disaffected white racists who resent civil rights and Black people in general — depend on Black people not being able to vote so they can remain in power.

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