OPINION: Blocking the vote 40 years after Bloody Sunday

The tragic, history-making events of “Bloody Sunday,” on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Ala., ultimately freed the vote for millions of African Americans. Forty years later, as we reflect on the march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are also reminded that more than 2 million African Americans continue to be denied the right to vote by one of the vestiges of American slavery.

Black voter registration in Selma in 1965 was made virtually impossible by Alabama’s relentless efforts to block the Black vote, which included requiring Blacks to interpret entire sections of Alabama’s constitution, an impossible feat for even the most learned. On one occasion, even a Black man who had earned a Ph.D. was unable to pass Alabama’s literacy test.

On Bloody Sunday, John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams led almost 600 unarmed men, women and children in a peaceful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation their desire as Black people to participate in the political process.

As they crossed the highest part of the bridge, the marchers were viciously attacked by Alabama state troopers, who ridiculed, tear-gassed, clubbed, spat on, whipped and trampled them with their horses. In the end, Lewis’s skull was fractured by a state trooper’s nightstick, and 17 other marchers were hospitalized.

In direct response to Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson, five months later, signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. Considered by many to be the greatest victory of the civil-rights movement, the Voting Rights Act removed barriers, such as literacy tests, that had long kept Blacks from voting.

Despite the promise of increased political participation by Blacks and other racial minorities created by the Voting Rights Act, its full potential has not been realized by one of the last excluded segments of our society: Americans with felony convictions.

Today, nearly 5 million Americans are literally locked out of the political process by state felon disfranchisement laws that disqualify people with felony convictions from voting.

The historical record reveals that to prevent newly freed Blacks from voting after the Civil War, many state legislatures in the North and South tailored their felon disfranchisement laws to require the loss of voting rights only for those offenses committed mostly by Blacks.

Indeed, in recognition of the fact that Alabama’s felon disfranchisement law was enacted in 1901 to prevent Blacks from voting and to reinforce white supremacy, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Hunter v. Underwood, struck down Alabama’s provision as unconstitutional. Alabama’s felon disfranchisement law was subsequently reenacted.

As intended, modern day felon disfranchisement laws serve to disproportionately weaken the voting strength of Black and Latino communities. This results largely from the disproportionate enforcement of drug laws in Black and Latino communities, which has expanded exponentially the number of people of color subjected to felon disfranchisement.

State felon disfranchisement statutes are the most destructive in Black and Latino communities, which are often affected disproportionately by numerous socioeconomic ills, including concentrated poverty, substandard education, housing and health care. As a result, people in these communities are even less able to combat these social ills through the ballot box.

Regrettably, 40 years after 600 people literally risked their lives on Bloody Sunday to expand democracy for Blacks and other racial minorities, and in the 40th anniversary year of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Blacks and Latinos, rather than experiencing increased political participation, are actually losing their voting rights daily.

It is time to erase felon disfranchisement laws from the books. Indeed, the integrity and legitimacy of America’s democracy, and the fulfillment of the promise of the Voting Rights Act and the human sacrifice that led to its passage, depends on it.

Ryan Paul Haygood (rhaygood @ naacpldf.org) is assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and Right the Vote, a national campaign which seeks to restore voting rights to persons with felony convictions.