Thousands of people will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic civil rights march on March 7th in the small southern U.S. city of Selma, Alabama. In 1965, dozens of people were seriously injured during the event known as “Bloody Sunday,” after police attacked African-American demonstrators demanding voting rights.
"The vote is definitely more vulnerable than it had been since 1965 there's no doubt about that in my mind,” said Alabama State Senator Hank Sanders.
Without the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Hank Sanders believes he would not be sitting in his chair. “It is getting worse every time they try to find some new way to make it harder to vote, rather than easier to vote,” he stated.
The longtime Alabama state senator credits the voting power of blacks in the South for his string of successes at the ballot box. But 50 years later he is worried about new efforts to restrict who can vote.
"It's more than troubling to me, it is deeply painful to anybody who was a part of the voting rights act 50 years ago,” Sanders said. “We could not imagine that 50 years later we would still be fighting for the right to vote.”
Sanders remembers the spotlight shined on Selma after police beat back hundreds of blacks who were peacefully protesting for voting rights in 1965.
Fifty years ago history was made on this (Edmund Pettus) bridge. Now people in this community do not want the world to forget what happened here and never let it happen again.
"We have to fight in every way we can to beat back these many and varied attacks on the right to vote," Sanders said.
He said the violence of the 1960s is gone. He said the fight now is against new voter identification laws and a proposal to make residents prove their citizenship before they can register to vote. "Photo identification requirements in order to vote is nothing more than a poll tax,” he explained. “The citizenship required ... in order to be registered, is just another kind of literacy test. There are always different things that are being put in.”
"I said I wanted to go to law school come back to Alabama and pass the bar examination and destroy everything segregated I could find," said Fred Gray.
Gray, a legendary civil rights attorney, has been fighting for voting rights for decades in Alabama. He said a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling eliminated parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 5 to 4 decision allowed nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.
The divided court disagreed on whether racial minorities still face barriers to voting in states with a history of discrimination. Gray said the battle for expanding freedoms at the ballot box can be won. “I think we need not get discouraged about what the Supreme Court did. We are sorry that it did it and hope that we can get around it with additional legislation, and the struggle continues,” he noted.
These long time civil rights activists say they will do everything they can to overturn restrictive voting rights laws, restore the full Voting Rights Act and battle against or beat back further efforts on the right to vote.