This weekend marked the fifteenth year that John Lewis has led a bipartisan congressional delegation on a civil-rights pilgrimage to Alabama, under the auspices of the Faith and Politics Institute. This year 100 members of Congress joined him, the largest delegation in the pilgrimage’s history. I was lucky enough to tag along.
They visited 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four young girls were killed in a 1963 bombing, and heard Lewis give a riveting account of being imprisoned and beaten during the Freedom Rides in 1961, when he was only 21. They visited the Rosa Parks museum in Montgomery and celebrated the Voting Rights Act (VRA) on the steps of the Alabama capitol. And, of course, they visited Selma to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday, where they met the foot soldiers of the voting-rights movement and listened to President Obama celebrate the most important march in civil-rights history.
Obama spoke at the foot of the bridge where his hero, John Lewis, nearly died fifty years earlier. The president linked the struggle for the right to vote in March 1965 to the fight for voting rights today.
From 2011 to 2015, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in forty-nine states, with half the states in the country passing laws making it harder to vote. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the centerpiece of VRA—nullifying the requirement that states with the worst histories of voting discrimination clear their voting changes with the federal government.
Obama denounced this disturbing trend:
Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.
How can that be? The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic efforts. (Applause.) President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President George W. Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. (Applause.) One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it. If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year. That’s how we honor those on this bridge. (Applause.)
President Obama speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
President Bush—who signed the last reauthorization of the VRA in 2006—stood and cheered Obama’s remarks. Lewis, who sat a few feet away, called the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder “a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act” and is a lead sponsor of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA), which partially restores Section 4 of the VRA—the formula determining which states have to clear voting changes with the federal government—based on recent voting rights violations.
John Lewis tells the story of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Even though Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the VRA on four occasions (1970, 1975, 1982, 2006), few Republicans have heeded Lewis’s call. Last week, Congress unanimously passed a bill honoring the foot soldiers of the Selma movement, but the VRAA has only eleven GOP sponsors in the House and none in the Senate. Of the 23 Republican members of Congress who traveled to Selma, none were current sponsors of the VRAA. There are eighty-two members of Congress who voted for the VRA in 2006 but have not sponsored the VRAA.
Did Obama’s speech, Lewis’s pilgrimage and the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday change that dynamic? Maybe.
“It’s a clarion call to Congress that we need to address it and address it now,” said Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH), the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“This is a moment of hope, a reminder that people can make change,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), after her first visit to Selma. “But it’s also a moment of shame, because fifty years after Selma the Voting Rights Act has been gutted and this Congress will not even bring itself to vote on a stronger law.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren in Selma
She said it was hypocritical for lawmakers to visit Selma and not sign on to legislation strengthening the VRA. “I just want some accountability. I want to know that everyone who showed up here today to have their picture taken on the bridge next to the heroes of the civil-rights movement is ready to support a new Voting Rights Act. Every one of them.”
A number of Republicans I interviewed expressed a newfound openness on the issue after spending time in Alabama with Lewis.
Representative Tom Reed (R-NY) from upstate New York said he would sponsor the VRAA when he returned. “Events like today, the fiftieth anniversary—such a pivotal moment in our nation’s history—could be a springboard to getting it completed,” he said.
Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), who voted for the VRA in 2006, said she was struck by Lewis’s statement that in Lowndes County, which adjoins Selma, there were no African-Americans registered to vote in March 1965. “I knew there were barriers, but I did not fully understand how onerous and high those barriers were,” Collins said.
She said she would consider sponsoring the VRAA. “I need to look more closely at the Supreme Court’s decision and I will at the end of this trip. I’m more sensitive that barriers can dissuade people from voting.”
Collins had not discussed the issue with the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who has been trying for months to find a Republican co-sponsor. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) told me the same thing. “I’m not on the [Judiciary] Committee or that engaged with it,” Portman said. “I will now learn more about it when I get back…Because of this trip, I will be more interested.”
Senator Tim Scott (R-SC)—a co-chair of the pilgrimage and the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction—said he supported the Shelby decision, but also praised Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner’s efforts to find GOP support for the VRAA in the House. “He’s working it the right direction,” Scott said. “I have not studied the proposal. To eliminate an outdated formula in order to ensure that everyone has the access to vote, I’m open to that discussion.” After Obama’s speech, Scott tweeted: “Access to the ballot for all Americans must be protected. Will be conversations on #VRA as we continue to discuss path forward.”
The Alabama Republican delegation was less amenable to fixing the VRA. Representative Martha Roby, a co-chair of the trip, said she was not supporting the VRAA. “If Congress is going to take up any changes, it needs to be done with fairness, not just apply to Alabama, but all across this great country.” Her Senate counterpart, Jeff Sessions, told Politico: “I don’t think that the Supreme Court ruling has damaged voting rights in any real way.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told me he had discussed the issue extensively with Eric Cantor in the last Congress, but hasn’t talked about it with the current House GOP leadership. “I expect to have conversations in the near future,” he said.
No member of the Republican leadership was planning to visit Selma until House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy changed his plans at the eleventh hour. According to Politico, McCarthy “said he didn’t see acting on the VRA as the right way to move forward from Selma.”
The VRA has always had strong bipartisan support. The four reauthorizations were signed by Republican presidents and supported by a majority of Republicans. Conservative outlets like National Review admonished the GOP for lightly attending the Selma anniversary.
“As it would be unthinkable for the leadership of the Republican party to ignore July Fourth, it should be unthinkable for its luminaries not to celebrate the anniversary of the March to Montgomery either,” wrote National Review’s Charles Cooke.
“Obviously, I wish more would have considered and made the commitment to come, because it is such an important issue in American history,” said Representative Tom Reed from New York. “I’ll share my personal experience and what impact it had.”
If this trip couldn’t persuade people to embrace the cause of voting rights, what could, asked Representative John Conyers (D-MI), who’s sponsoring the VRAA with Sensenbrenner in the House. “If we don’t [do it now], I don’t know what else we can do.”
Before hearing from the president and walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, members of Congress visited Brown Chapel—the headquarters of the Selma movement in 1965—where they heard from foot soldiers like Sheyann Webb, who at 8 was the youngest marcher on Bloody Sunday, and Fred Gray, the crusading lawyer for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.
Gray urged the Congress not to forget about the blood shed in Selma and why it matters today.
“We are losing the battle for civil rights now,” he warned bluntly. “I hope this will motivate you to go back and not just do the same thing.”
Mary Liuzzo recounted the story of her mother, Viola, a Detroit housewife who traveled to Selma after watching the footage of Bloody Sunday. She was killed by Klansmen after the march from Selma to Montgomery. “My question is: Why didn’t everyone come to Selma?” Liuzzo said. One could ask the same question today.