The Oklahoman

Biden: Voting rights threatened

President commemorat­es ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Selma

- Aamer Madhani and Kim Chandler

SELMA, Ala. – President Joe Biden used the searing memories of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” to recommit to a cornerston­e of democracy, lionizing a seminal moment from the civil rights movement at a time when he has been unable to push enhanced voting protection­s through Congress and a conservati­ve Supreme Court has undermined a landmark voting law.

“Selma is a reckoning. The right to vote … to have your vote counted is the threshold of democracy and liberty. With it anything’s possible,” Biden told a crowd of more than 1,000 people seated on one side of the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a reputed Ku Klux Klan leader.

“This fundamenta­l right remains under assault.,” he said. “The conservati­ve Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act over the years. Since the 2020 election, a wave of states and dozens and dozens of anti-voting laws fueled by the ‘Big Lie’ and the election deniers now elected to office.”

As a candidate in 2020, Biden promised to pursue sweeping legislatio­n to bolster protection of voting rights.

Two years ago, his 2021 legislatio­n, named after civil right leader John Lewis, the late Georgia congressma­n, included provisions to restrict partisan gerrymande­ring of congressio­nal districts, strike down hurdles to voting and bring transparen­cy to a campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to bankroll political causes anonymousl­y.

It passed the then-Democratic-controlled House, but it failed to draw the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate even under control of Biden’s party. With Republican­s now in control of the House, passage of such legislatio­n is highly unlikely.

“We know we must get the votes in Congress,” Biden said, but there seems no viable path right now.

The visit to Selma was a chance for Biden to speak directly to the current generation of civil rights activists. Many feel let down because of the lack of progress on voting rights and they are eager to see his administra­tion keep the issue in the spotlight.

Few moments have had as lasting importance to the civil rights movement as what happened on March 7, 1965, in Selma and in the weeks that followed.

Some 600 peaceful demonstrat­ors led by Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams had gathered that day, just weeks after the fatal shooting of a young Black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by an Alabama trooper.

Lewis and the others were brutally beaten by Alabama troopers and sheriff ’s deputies as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the start of what was supposed to be a 54-mile walk to the state Capitol in Montgomery as part of a larger effort to register Black voters in the South.

“On this bridge, blood was given to help redeem the soul of America,” Biden said.

The images of the police violence sparked outrage across the country. Days later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. led what became known as the “Turnaround Tuesday” march, in which marchers approached a wall of police at the bridge and prayed before turning back.

President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eight days after “Bloody Sunday,” calling Selma one those rare moments in American history where “history and fate meet at a single time.” On March 21, King began a third march, under federal protection, that grew by thousands by the time they arrived at the state Capitol. Five months later, Johnson signed the bill into law.

This year’s commemorat­ion came as the historic city of roughly 18,000 was still digging out from the aftermath of a January EF-2 tornado that destroyed or damaged thousands of properties in and around Selma. The scars of that storm were still evident Sunday. Blocks from the stage where Biden spoke, houses sat crumbled or without roofs.

Orange spray paint marked buildings beyond salvage with instructio­ns to “tear down.”

“We remain Selma strong,” Mayor James Perkins said, adding that “we will build back better.” He thanked Biden for approving a disaster declaratio­n that helped the small city with the cost of debris cleanup and removal.

Before Biden’s visit, the Rev. William Barber II, a co-chair of Poor People’s Campaign, and six other activists wrote Biden and members of Congress to express their frustratio­n with the lack of progress on voting rights legislatio­n. They urged Washington politician­s visiting Selma not to sully the memories of Lewis and Williams and other civil rights activists with empty platitudes.

“We’re saying to President Biden, let’s frame this to America as a moral issue, and let’s show how it affects everybody,” Barber said in an interview.

Among those sharing the stage with Biden before the march across the bridge were Barber, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Water bottles were passed out to some in the crowd gathered to hear Biden and at least one person was taken away on a stretcher because of the upper-70s heat. Some had waited hours in the sun before relief came from shadows cast from a nearby building.

Delores Gresham, 65, a retired health care worker from Birmingham, arrived four hours early, grabbing a front-row spot so her grandchild­ren could hear the president and see the commemorat­ion.

“I want them to know what happened here,” she said.

In his remarks, Biden said, “Everyone should know the truth of Selma.”

Two years ago on the anniversar­y, Biden issued an executive order directing federal agencies to expand access to voter registrati­on, called on the heads of agencies to come up with plans to give federal employees time off to vote or volunteer as nonpartisa­n poll workers, and more.

But many federal agencies are lagging in meeting the voting registrati­on provision of Biden’s order, according to a report published Thursday by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

 ?? PATRICK SEMANSKY/AP ?? “On this bridge, blood was given to help redeem the soul of America,” President Joe Biden said near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
PATRICK SEMANSKY/AP “On this bridge, blood was given to help redeem the soul of America,” President Joe Biden said near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.

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