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In Selma, Biden says voting rights remain under attack


SELMA, Ala. – President Joe Biden has used the burning memories of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” to recommit to a cornerstone of democracy, touting a seminal moment for the civil rights movement at a time when he was unable to passing enhanced voting protections in Congress and a conservative Supreme Court undermined a landmark election law.

“Selma is a reckoning. The right to vote…to have your vote count is the threshold of democracy and freedom. With him, anything is possible,” Biden told a crowd of several thousand seated in one side of the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a noted leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

“This fundamental right remains under attack. The conservative Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act over the years. Since the 2020 election, a wave of states and dozens and dozens of anti-vote laws fueled by the now-elected Big Lie and election deniers,” he said.

As a 2020 candidate, Biden has vowed to pursue sweeping legislation to strengthen voting rights protections. Two years ago, his 2021 legislation, named after civil rights leader John Lewis, the former congressman from Georgia, included provisions to curb partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, remove barriers to vote and to bring transparency to a campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to fund political causes anonymously.

He passed the then Democratic-controlled House, but he failed to secure the 60 votes needed to advance in a Senate controlled by Biden’s party. With Republicans now leading the House, passage of such legislation is highly unlikely.

“We know we need 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 feel disappointed with the lack of progress on suffrage and are eager to see his administration keep the issue in the spotlight.

Few moments have had such enduring significance for the civil rights movement as what happened on March 7, 1965, in Selma and the weeks that followed.

Some 600 peaceful protesters led by Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams had gathered that day, just weeks after the shooting death of a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by an Alabama soldier.

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

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

Images of police brutality sparked outrage across the country. Days later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. led what became known as the “Turnaround Tuesday” march, in which marchers approached a wall of police on 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 when ‘history and fate collide at the same time. . On March 21, King began a third march, under federal protection, which grew by the thousands by the time they arrived at the state Capitol. Five months later, Johnson signed the bill into law.

This year’s commemoration came as the historic town of about 18,000 people was still digging in after an EF-2 tornado in January that destroyed or damaged thousands of properties in and around Selma. The scars of that storm were still evident on Sunday. A few blocks from the stage where Biden spoke, houses collapsed or had no roofs. Orange spray paint marked unsalvageable buildings with instructions to “tear down.”

“We remain strong from Selma,” said Mayor James Perkins, adding that “we will build back better.” He thanked Biden for approving a disaster declaration that helped the small town with the cost of cleanup and debris removal.

Prior to Biden’s visit, the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, and six other activists wrote to Biden and members of Congress expressing their frustration at the lack of progress on suffrage legislation. They urged Washington politicians visiting Selma not to sully the memories of Lewis and Williams and other civil rights activists with empty platitudes.

“We’re telling President Biden, presenting this to America as a moral issue, and showing how this affects everyone,” Barber said in an interview.

Among those who shared the stage with Biden before the walk on the bridge were Barber, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III and the Reverend Al Sharpton. On the bridge the walkers sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome” and, in keeping with tradition, once they reached the point where Lewis and others learned in 1958 that they were marching illegally, they stopped and prayed. .

President Biden Al Sharpton Terri Sewell Jesse Jackson
President Joe Biden crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Sunday, Patrick Semansky/AP

Bottles of water were handed out to some who had gathered to hear Biden and at least one person was taken out on a stretcher because of the 70s heat. Some had waited hours in the sun before relief set in. comes from the shadows cast from the neighboring building.

Delores Gresham, 65, a retired healthcare worker from Birmingham, arrived four hours early, taking a front row seat so her grandchildren could hear the president and view the commemoration.

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

In his remarks, Biden said, “Everyone should know the truth about Selma.” And the president took a veiled dig at a top Republican, Florida Governor 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 the teaching of a new advanced placement course in African American studies in high schools, saying it violates state law and is historically inaccurate. Last year, he signed a law that restricts certain conversations and analyzes based on race in schools and businesses. More recently, his budget office called on state colleges to submit information on program spending related to diversity, equity and inclusion and critical race theory.

Two years ago, on the anniversary, Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to expand access to voter registration, called on agency heads to come up with plans to give federal employees time off to vote or volunteer as nonpartisan scrutineers, and more. .

But many federal agencies are slow to comply with the vote-recording provision of Biden’s order, according to a report released Thursday by the Leaders’ Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.