In Selma, Biden says the right to vote is still under attack

SELMA, Ala. — President Joe Biden used the poignant memories of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” to recommit to the cornerstone of democracy, marking an important moment in the civil rights movement at a time when it could not defend to push improved voting through Congress. and a landmark voting law was struck down by a conservative Supreme Court.

“Selma is an account. The right to vote … making your vote count is the threshold of democracy and freedom. Anything is possible,” Biden told a crowd of thousands of people sitting on one side of the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after the reputed leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

“This fundamental right is still under attack. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted by the conservative Supreme Court over the years. “Since the 2020 election, there has been a wave of state and dozens and dozens of anti-voting laws inspired by the ‘Big Lie’ and the election deniers now elected to office,” he said.

As a candidate in 2020, Biden has pledged to pursue sweeping legislation to strengthen voting rights protections. Two years ago, his 2021 legislation, named after the late civil rights leader John Lewis, Georgia congressman, included provisions to curb partisan gerrymandering in congressional districts, remove voting barriers and bring transparency to the system campaign finance that allows wealthy donors to bankroll. anonymous political reasons.

He ran the then-Democratic-controlled House, but failed to get the 60 votes necessary to advance in the Senate, which was controlled by Biden’s party. With Republicans now running the House, there is little chance that such legislation will be enacted.

“We know we have to get the votes in Congress,” Biden said, but there doesn’t seem to be a viable path right now.

The visit to Selma was an opportunity for Biden to speak directly to the current generation of civil rights activists. Many people feel let down by the lack of progress on voting rights and are eager to see their administration keep the issue moving.

Few moments have been as important to the civil rights movement as March 7, 1965, in Selma and the weeks that followed.

About 600 peaceful demonstrators led by Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams gathered that day, just weeks after the fatal shooting of a young Black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by an Alabama trooper.

Alabama troopers and sheriff’s deputies brutally beat Lewis and the others as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the start of what was supposed to be a 54-mile walk to the state Capitol in Montgomery as part of a larger effort to register. Black voters in the South.

“On this bridge, blood was given to help redeem the soul of America,” Biden said.

Images of police violence sparked outrage across the country. Days later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. led a so-called “Turnaround Tuesday” march, in which marchers approached a police wall at the bridge and prayed before turning back.

President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eight days after “Bloody Sunday,” calling Selma one of those rare moments in American history where “history and destiny meet in one one time. ” On March 21, King began a third march, under federal protection, which grew to thousands by the time they reached the state Capitol. Five months later, Johnson signed the bill into law.

This year’s anniversary occurred when the historic city of about 18,000 was still digging out after a January EF-2 tornado destroyed or damaged thousands of properties in and around Selma. The scars of that storm were still visible on Sunday. Blocks from the stage where Biden spoke, houses sat crumbled or without roofs. Orange spray paint marked buildings beyond salvage with instructions to “destroy.”

“We’re still strong Selma,” said Mayor James Perkins, adding “we’ll bounce back better.” He thanked Biden for approving a disaster declaration that helped the small city with the cost of cleanup and debris removal.

Before Biden’s visit, the Rev. William Barber II, co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, and six other Biden activists and members of Congress to express their frustration about the lack of progress on voting rights legislation. They urged Washington politicians who visited Selma not to tarnish the memories of Lewis and Williams and other civil rights activists with empty platitudes.

“We’re saying to President Biden, let’s frame this to America as a moral issue, and we’ll show how it affects everyone,” Barber said in an interview.

Among those sharing the stage with Biden before the march across the bridge were Barber, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III and Fr. Al Sharpton. On crossing the bridge, the marchers sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome” and, according to tradition, when they reached the point where Lewis and others were told in 1958 that they were marching illegally , they stopped and prayed. .

President Biden Al Sharpton Terri Sewell Jesse Jackson
President Joe Biden will walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Sunday, Patrick Semansky / AP

Bottles of water were handed out to people gathered to hear Biden and at least one person was taken to a stretcher due to heat in the upper 70s. Several hours had passed in the sun before relief came from the shadows cast by the nearby building.

Delores Gresham, 65, a retired health care worker from Birmingham, arrived four hours early, grabbing a front seat so her grandchildren could hear the president and see the commemoration.

“I want them to know what happened here,” she said.

In his comments, Biden said, “Everybody should know the truth of Selma.” And the president took a dig at a high-profile Republican, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, when he said: “We should learn everything. The good, the bad, the truth, who we are as a nation.”

The DeSantis administration has blocked a new Advanced Placement course on African American studies from being taught in high schools, saying it violates state law and is historically inaccurate. Last year, he signed legislation that restricts certain race-based conversations and analysis in schools and businesses. Recently, his budget office asked state colleges to submit spending information on programs related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory.

Two years ago on the anniversary, Biden issued an executive order ordering federal agencies to expand access to voter registration, asking agency heads to come up with plans to give federal employees time off to vote or work volunteer as non-partisan poll workers, and more. .

But many federal agencies are lagging behind in complying with the voter registration provision of Biden’s order, according to a report published Thursday by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

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