Tens of thousands of people, including President Obama and more than 100 members of Congress, traveled to Selma, Alabama, this weekend for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. On March 7, 1965, hundreds of peaceful voting rights activists were brutally attacked by Alabama state troopers, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery. Bloody Sunday was the first of three attempted marches, finally completed under federal protection and led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on March 24. The protests helped bring about the 1965 Voting Rights Act. “That’s the irony of being here today,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “We’ve come to commemorate and lift up and celebrate the activism and the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. But today the Voting Rights Act is under peril because of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby case two years ago.” Ifill outlines how the court ended federal review of changes to voting laws in jurisdictions with a history of abuse, thereby launching a wave of new voting restrictions. She also details efforts by the NAACP–LDF to restore this protection.
AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from Alabama. Tens of thousands of people, including President Obama and over a hundred members of Congress, traveled to Selma, Alabama, this weekend for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. On March 7th, 1965, hundreds of peaceful voting rights activists were attacked by police and state troopers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they attempted to march to Montgomery. Scores were injured, including, well, the man who would become the future congressman, John Lewis. Then, he was a 25-year-old organizer with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Bloody Sunday was the first of three attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery, which was finally completed under federal protection and led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The protests helped bring about the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Democracy Now! was in the streets of Selma this weekend.
SHERRILYN IFILL: My name’s Sherrilyn Ifill. I’m the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. We come to Selma, actually, every year for the anniversary, so we’re actually happy to see so many more people here this year for the 50th. It’s special for us because, you know, LDF lawyers represented the marchers in all of the battles in the federal courts. As a matter of fact, we put up on our website today at www.naacpldf.org the original march plan that the lawyers created and submitted to the court, to Judge Frank Johnson, that was approved, right down to the number of toilets and how long the marchers would march. All of that had to be approved by the federal court for that final march. As you know, it’s actually three marches: It’s the first march, the Bloody Sunday march; it’s the second march in which Dr. King led people to the bridge, then knelt in prayer and turned back; and then, finally, the third march, in which they went from Selma to Montgomery.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain on that second march why Dr. King turned around.
SHERRILYN IFILL: It’s a really good question. You know, here’s what I really think, and from people that I’ve spoken to. You know, Dr. King at that time, as did many in the civil rights movement, felt that there were—that the federal judges were the judges who had been really most understanding of the efforts in the civil rights movement. And so, they really never wanted to contravene a federal court order. They understood all the problems they had with state court judges. And so, when they had a federal court order—
AMY GOODMAN: And what was that order?
SHERRILYN IFILL: And the federal court order enjoined them from having the march, until there was a trial. And so, Dr. King, I think, was torn about whether or not to violate that federal court order by leading that march across the bridge. And then, I think, in that moment in which he saw the troopers on the other side and they seemed to want him to proceed, that it was a trap of some kind, whether it was a kind of movement trap to make him violate the order or whether it was a trap at which violence would be at the other end—I think really plagued him. And he carried very strongly this idea that he would be responsible for people being harmed. That was something he never wanted. He was willing to take it himself, but he carried that very strongly on his heart. So I think some of it was about the relationship between civil rights activists and the federal courts. The federal courts were in many ways the place where civil rights activists went to get a fair hearing, and so it was a difficult position to be in.
AMY GOODMAN: And then explain what happened on March 23rd.
SHERRILYN IFILL: And so, finally, we went back to—he turned back around, went back to the church. And then we actually had a trial, in which we appeared in the court. Jack Greenberg, who was then the director-counsel of the Legal Defense Fund, had Martin Luther King as the first witness to talk about the march. We raised all of the First Amendment arguments, that the marchers were peaceable, that this was their right under the Constitution to march, that they could not be interfered with by the governor of the state. And the judge agreed and lifted the injunction and enjoined the governor, Governor Wallace, from interfering with the march and from violently resisting the marchers.
And so the march began, and they walked from Selma to Montgomery, and Martin Luther King gave a triumphant speech at the end of the march. It was really important for the collaborative of people in the movement. It was SNCC, and it was activists on the ground in Selma, and it was faith leaders, and it was Martin Luther King, and it was so many people who came together as a result of that activism. It almost was a microcosm of what was at stake and the way in which Southern officials responded to the determination of African Americans to be real citizens.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the Voting Rights Act would be signed in August of 1965—
SHERRILYN IFILL: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —by Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago.
SHERRILYN IFILL: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Where are we today?
SHERRILYN IFILL: Well, that’s the irony of being here today, of course, right? We’ve come to commemorate and lift up and celebrate the activism and the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. But today, the Voting Rights Act is really under peril because of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby case two years ago. And so, I’ve been telling people—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain the Shelby case.
SHERRILYN IFILL: Absolutely. So the Voting Rights Act of 1965, you know, which has been called kind of the most important piece of civil rights legislation of that period, carried within it a provision that required jurisdictions, mostly in the South, that had a history of discrimination to submit to a federal authority any voting changes they wanted to make, to make sure that they don’t discriminate against minority voters. And we’ve lived under that regime for 48 years. Congress has reauthorized the act three times, bipartisan every time. The last time, the vote was 396 to 33 in the House and 98 to zero in the Senate; that was in 2006. And that was based on Congress’s findings that between 1982 and 2006 voting discrimination still was occurring in those states.
Well, the Supreme Court, when they heard the Shelby case in 2013, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, decided something quite different. They basically refused to accept the record that Congress had amassed of hundreds of pages, 90 witnesses, over nine months of testimony. And they insisted that discrimination is a thing of the past, that history is history, and we cannot connect that history to the South of today. And so, Justice Roberts essentially gutted the provision that required this preclearance. And as a result, since that decision, jurisdictions all over the country, but particularly in the South, have unleashed a wave of voter suppression that your listeners know very well about.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you think needs to happen today?
SHERRILYN IFILL: Well, what needs to happen today is two things. We, first of all—
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you want to hear President Obama say today?
SHERRILYN IFILL: OK, we have a case right now in Texas. We have litigated the Texas voter ID case, which we won in the district court. The district court last fall found that Texas intentionally passed its voter ID law to discriminate against black and Latino voters. That’s powerful. That decision is now on appeal and will be heard next month. So, that’s really important for people to keep their eye on.
Secondly, we need an amendment to the Voting Rights Act. Congress should take up the Voting Rights Act. But we can’t even get a hearing in the House. We’re not afraid of the facts. We’re not afraid of our position. All we want is to come together and talk about the issue, talk about the Voting Rights Act amendment, talk about what we need. If there are objections to it, tell us what they are in a hearing room. Give us the respect of bringing it to the table and having the American public hear what we want and what they want. So that’s what we’ve been asking for.
The president today, I hope that he will essentially say some of this. I hope he’ll, of course, recognize and honor the history. But I hope that he will remind everyone who’s assembled here to celebrate the history, that, as many people say, Selma is now, and the fight continues. And our job, if we really want to honor those people who gave their lives and their blood on that bridge, is to continue the work, to not allow the act—that they fought so hard for—to be killed and to be watered down and to be dissipated in the way that it has in the past three years. And so, I’m hoping that he’ll recognize that balance.