WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden used the searing memories of Selma's “Bloody Sunday” to recommit to a cornerstone of democracy, lionizing a seminal moment from the civil rights movement at a time when he has been unable to push enhanced voting protections through Congress and a conservative Supreme Court has undermined a landmark voting law.
“Selma is a reckoning. The right to vote ... to have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty. With it anything's possible,” Biden told a crowd of several thousand people seated on one side of the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a reputed Ku Klux Klan leader.
"This fundamental right remains under assault. 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-voting laws fueled by the ‘Big Lie' and the election deniers now elected to office," he said.
As a candidate in 2020, Biden promised to pursue sweeping legislation to bolster protection of voting rights. Two years ago, his 2021 legislation, named after civil right leader John Lewis, the late Georgia congressman, included provisions to restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strike down hurdles to voting and bring transparency to a campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to bankroll political causes anonymously.
It passed the then-Democratic-controlled House, but it failed to draw the 60 votes needed to advance in a Senate under control by Biden's party. With Republicans now running of the House, passage of such legislation is highly unlikely.
“We know we must get the votes in Congress,” Biden said, but there seems no viable path right now.
The visit to Selma was a chance for Biden to speak directly to the current generation of civil rights activists. Many feel let down because of the lack of progress on voting rights and they are eager to see his administration keep the issue in the spotlight.
Few moments have had as lasting importance to the civil rights movement as what happened on March 7, 1965, in Selma and in the weeks that followed.
Some 600 peaceful demonstrators led by Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams had gathered that day, just weeks after the fatal shooting of a young Black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by an Alabama trooper.
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 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.
The images of the police violence 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 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 those rare moments in American history where “ history and fate meet at a single time. ” On March 21, King began a third march, under federal protection, that grew by 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 city of roughly 18,000 was still digging out from the aftermath of a January EF-2 tornado that destroyed or damaged thousands of properties in and around Selma. The scars of that storm were still evident Sunday. Blocks from the stage where Biden spoke, houses sat crumbled or without roofs. Orange spray paint marked buildings beyond salvage with instructions to “tear down.”
“We remain Selma strong,” Mayor James Perkins said, adding that “we will build back better.” He thanked Biden for approving a disaster declaration that helped the small city with the cost of debris cleanup and removal.
Before Biden's visit, the Rev. William Barber II, a co-chair of Poor People’s Campaign, and six other activists wrote Biden and members of Congress to express their frustration with the lack of progress on voting rights 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 saying to President Biden, let’s frame this to America as a moral issue, and let’s show how it effects everybody,” Barber said in an interview.
Among those sharing the stage with Biden before the march across the bridge were Barber, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Al Sharpton. On the bridge crossing, marchers sang “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome” and, following tradition, once they reached the point where Lewis and others were told in 1958 that they were on an unlawful march, they stopped and prayed.
Water bottles were passed out to some who had gathered to hear Biden and at least one person was taken away on a stretcher because of the upper-70s heat. Some had waited hours in the sun before relief came from shadows cast from nearby building.
Delores Gresham, 65, a retired health care worker from Birmingham, arrived four hours early, grabbing a front-row spot so her grandchildren could hear the president and see the commemoration.
“I want them to know what happened here,” she said.
In his remarks, Biden said, “Everyone should know the truth of Selma.” And the president took a veiled 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.”
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. More recently, his budget office called on 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 directing federal agencies to expand access to voter registration, called on the heads of agencies to come up with plans to give federal employees time off to vote or volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers, and more.
But many federal agencies are lagging in meeting the voting registration provision of Biden's order, according to a report published Thursday by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.