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.)