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‘The world is watching’

Thousands commemorate ‘Bloody Sunday’ attack

By Kalin Thomas Contributing Writer | 3/8/2013, noon
Three busloads of metro Atlanta activists, civic leaders and laypeople traveled to this iconic Southern town on Sunday to commemorate ...

Voter identification laws are largely supported by Republicans who insist they are needed to prevent voter fraud. Democrats contend such laws suppress minority voter turnout because a higher percentage of blacks and Latinos have no government-issued documents such as a driver's license or passport.

Ironic sense of urgency

Civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson said Sunday's event had an ironic sense of urgency because the U.S. Supreme Court heard a request last week by a mostly white Alabama county – Shelby County – to strike down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act.

“We've had the right to vote 48 years, but they've never stopped trying to diminish the impact of the votes,” Jackson said. “The Voting Rights Act is only as good as the enforcement of it is.”

The Supreme Court is weighing Shelby County's challenge to a provision of the law requiring states with a history of racial discrimination – including Georgia – to get approval from the Justice Department before implementing any changes in election laws.

Attorneys for Shelby County argued that the so-called “pre-clearance” requirement is outdated in a state where one-fourth of the legislature is black. But Jackson predicts that if the Supreme Court voids the pre-clearance provision, Southern lawmakers will return to such moves as eliminating black-majority districts and holding more at-large elections to diminish black voting strength.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the defendant in Shelby County's suit, told marchers that the Deep South is far different than it was in 1965, but is not yet at the point where the most important part of the voting rights act can be dismissed.

Martin Luther King III, whose father led the march when it resumed after Bloody Sunday, said: “We come here not to just celebrate and observe but to recommit.”

‘Freedom ain’t free’

SCLC chief executive officer Charles Steele Jr. agreed, adding: “Freedom ain’t free. We have to fight for it on a daily basis.

“It was the sacrifices of SCLC and civil rights activists that got us a President Barack Obama,” Steele added. “So we must tell the story and always reenact and commemorate.”

Earlier that morning, Steele fired up a crowd at a pre-march church service at First Baptist Church, where the late Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy was pastor.

“The world is watching us,” Steele told an enthusiastic, standing room only crowd. “We need to talk about the days when we had to go to the back of the bus. It’s a mistake not to talk about it [to our youth.] And black politicians need to remember it was the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act that got them in office, and it’s time they stand up for the people!”

SCLC President Emeritus Rev. Joseph Lowery, who attended the 1965 march, told reenactment marchers that even though confined to a wheelchair, nothing could stop him from attending the weekend event in Selma:

“We’ve come too far, marched too long, prayed too hard, wept too bitterly, bled too profusely and died too young to let anybody turn back the clock.”