Civil-rights groups say the commemoration of the Selma march should spark work in Congress to update the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court weakened it in 2013.
WASHINGTON — Nearly one-fifth of Congress will be in Selma, Ala., this weekend with President Obama and his family to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march, a watershed moment that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Civil-rights groups say the commemoration of this moment in the civil-rights movement should spark work in Congress to update the law after the Supreme Court weakened it in 2013. Some congressional supporters say the lawmakers’ pilgrimage could help build support.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, will be one of 98 members of both parties from the House and Senate going to Selma.
“It shows me there’s interest by Republicans to guarantee voting rights for African Americans,” Butterfield said.
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Some Republicans believed there was no longer a need for federal oversight of states’ voting changes. Butterfield said he hoped they would learn of contemporary stories about voting restrictions during the weekend of events and then be willing to consider updating the law.
Civil-rights groups are demanding it.
Cornell William Brooks, president and chief executive of the NAACP, told supporters Thursday that “while we commemorate the anniversary of this great march, we must also remember that our rights are still not secured — Selma is now.” He cited new laws since the Supreme Court decision, such as state ID requirements, that he argued imperiled voting rights.
“Commemoration requires legislation,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of rights groups, said in a statement this week. “Selma isn’t just a photo op. It’s a solemn remembrance of the blood, sweat, tears and lives that went into securing voting rights for racial minorities in this country.”
As portrayed in the movie “Selma,” some 600 peaceful protesters led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis set out that day on a march to Montgomery to call for voting rights in Alabama. Police met them on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and attacked them with clubs, whips and tear gas.
Lewis was bloodied with a blow to his head. Now a longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia, he’ll be in Selma this weekend. Lewis is co-chair emeritus of the board of The Faith and Politics Institute, the group organizing this weekend’s congressional pilgrimage. Its mission is to encourage reflection and discussion across racial, religious and party lines.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a requirement that nine states and parts of six others obtain Justice Department approval before making election changes that might disproportionately affect minority voting. The court said Congress should update the law.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., an honorary co-chairman of the Selma trip and the only African-American Republican in the Senate, said voting rights and the commemoration of Selma should be “decoupled.”
“The issue of voting-rights legislation and the issue of Selma, we ought to have an experience that brings people together and not make it into a political conversation,” Scott said.
But Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a co-sponsor of a bill last year to repair the Voting Rights Act, said he intends to honor the past and conduct business as he’s walking across Selma’s famous bridge this weekend.
He said he’ll be carrying a draft of a new Senate measure in his pocket and intends to talk about it.
“I’m not going to be haranguing senators, literally, while we are walking,” Coons said. “But the great thing about the civil-rights pilgrimage is it gives us several days in several places for reflection and discussion.”
And Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., said he was proud to attend the 50th anniversary to honor the civil-rights leaders and their legacy.
“We’ve come a long way since 1965, but we must continue to be ever vigilant in our enduring commitment to the civil rights of every American,” he said in a statement on Thursday.