A coalition of civil rights organizations and members of Congress are planning to re-enact the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of new voting laws passed and proposed around the nation. Scheduled for March 4-9, the event also seeks to draw attention to Alabama's immigration law requiring government officials to verify citizenship status during a range of transactions including traffic stops and enrolling a child in school.
"This will be the first step toward a national mobilization of going into the courts, as well as in the streets in those communities, around the whole issue," the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a Capitol Hill press conference on Thursday, joined by more than a dozen members of Congress, including Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Charles Gonzalez and Keith Ellison.
"Rather than convene after November's election, talking about what it did to us, we are hitting the road now to prevent it from happening and, in those states that have already enacted it, to try to turn it around," Sharpton continued. "We are purposefully raising both issues together because unless everyone is guaranteed civil and human rights, no one is guaranteed civil and human rights."
Despite the dual causes driving next month's march, most participants on Thursday focused on voting rights, also the reason for the original demonstration. But while protesters in 1965 faced literacy tests and violence (beaten and gassed by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the march), new state laws — which shorten early and absentee voting periods, require photo ID and place severe restrictions on voter-registration drives — were described as civil rights challenges of today.
"All of a sudden after the 2008 election, these laws miraculously appear," said an impassioned Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.). "Why? Because we have a black president in the White House, and it's to stop people of color from standing in line and from coming out to vote."
On the specific matter of government-issued ID laws, introduced in 34 states last year, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) pointed to the numbers in her state, where a significant number of African Americans don't have the required ID or necessary documents. "President Obama won our state by 418,000 votes. The new voter-ID law in Wisconsin will disenfranchise 475,000 people. So it will guarantee that Barack Obama cannot be re-elected in Wisconsin if this law is not enjoined by the court."
Moore rejected counterarguments about people needing government-issued IDs to board airplanes or rent cars. "These are not rights, people! It's not a right to get on an airplane," she said, calling voting rights the most protected by the Constitution. "The bar should be very, very high in order to disenfranchise anyone. Our district has looked high and low for people who have impersonated another person [at the polls], which is the only problem a photo ID would solve, and they have not found this to be a problem."
As speaker after speaker made clear, their goal is to eradicate such laws — not to help voters navigate around them. To assist black senior citizens in acquiring their birth certificates, for example, or raising legal fees to protect community groups that organize voter-registration drives would be an unacceptable accommodation.
"We don't want to do that until we have to get there," said Sharpton. "That's like during the Montgomery bus boycott saying, 'Can we give y'all money to get another bus line?' The idea is justice. The idea is not accommodation."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.