What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Voter suppression continues 55 years after ‘Bloody Sunday’

Fifty-five years ago today, hundreds of civil rights marchers were attacked by state troopers in Selma, Alabama. The violent assault came to be known as "Bloody Sunday," and set in motion the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Peniel Joseph, of the University of Texas at Austin, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss lessons from Bloody Sunday and how some voting rights have been whittled away.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Fifty-five years ago today, hundreds of civil rights marchers, including a young John Lewis, were attacked and beaten by state troopers in Selma, Alabama, after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The violent assault, which was captured by television cameras, became known as Bloody Sunday. Public outrage from the incident set in motion the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Peniel Joseph is founding director of the LBJ School's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin, and is author of the forthcoming book The Sword and the Shield The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.. Why was this particular moment? We had seen by that time so many other striking images of abuses by police against civil rights advocates and activists. Why did this resonate so much?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, it made national and international news. And by the evening when the footage was released on all three networks, people were really both outraged and inspired. ABC was showing judgment at Nuremberg about the crimes of the Holocaust, and they interrupt that judgment at Nuremberg to show that these innocent protesters being beaten. So when we think about all these different parallels that happened in nineteen sixty five in the late winter of nineteen sixty five, thousands of people protest. They come to Selma, they they go to the White House and they're protesting outside of the White House, which really spurs Lyndon Johnson, who was a supporter of voting rights, but it spurs him into even more decisive action.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Here we are heading into another election now. Fifty-five years later and the topics of race and the topics of access and the topic of rights are back in the news. Are African-Americans, do they have more access and more equal access now than 55 years ago? Yes. But where are there areas for improvement?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, I think the biggest areas of improvement are trying to end voter suppression. The Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby vs. Holder decision ended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which provided the Department of Justice with the right to amend any new efforts by local states and constituencies to halt voting rights for people of color or poor people or anyone who's on the margins. People who are dual language speakers. And since then, the last two national elections, we don't have the protection of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. So we really need to restore the protections of the 65 Voting Rights Act for all 50 states, not just for six or seven or eight or nine, 10 states with the previous coverage formula, but for all 50 states.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what are some of the effects of not having that protection?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, what we've seen is voter I.D. laws. We've seen polling locations close in Texas where I live alone. Seven hundred and fifty polling locations have closed shut down since at least 2013. We've seen it become much harder for African-Americans, for people of color to vote. The voter I.D. in Texas effectively stripped six hundred thousand people of access to the voting polls and the fact that university students can't use their student I.D. to vote. But if you have a gun license, you can use a gun. License to vote really shows us the partisan nature in which voting rights are being handled by our elected officials.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And there was also a Supreme Court case where they were determined there was surgical precision. I think this was a situation in North Carolina where, yes, there were structural rules in place. Now, there is no remedy for that without these protections.

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, you can still people are still filing legal defense fund, still filing lawsuits. But Section 5 clearly gave the Department of Justice the upper hand in blocking any kind of moves by local states to gerrymander or to really suppress votes by people of color.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What are the lessons here? Fifty five years later that we kind of need to remember as we exercise our civic rights and responsibilities?

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Well, Congressman John Lewis is a national hero. His skull was fractured on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And so when we think about Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, it's really the best of times and the worst of times because that violence brought out the best in Americans and the best in our politics to really have nonpartisan voting rights for all Americans. So the lesson is that even though we thought we had one voting rights protection in perpetuity in 1965, that struggle continues. Fifty-five years later, we have people of color who have don't have the same voting rights access that they did in 1966, in 1968, in national elections. Too many people face long voting lines right here in Texas. People stayed in line for four, five, six hours, even after the polls were closed to try to get their right to vote. So when we think about the lesson fifty five years later is that there is no right that's more fundamental for our democracy than voting rights in the United States. And we should really be pushing in a nonpartisan way for voting rights protection. So we need a new Voting Rights Act for the 21st century that covers all 50 states. It is not fueled by any kind of partisan appeals, but appeals to citizenship and really the virtues of American democracy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Peniel Joseph joining us from Austin. Texas tonight. Thanks so much.

  • Peniel Joseph:

    Thank you for having me.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest