From the passage of the 13th Amendment to the present, racial progress in America has often been prematurely celebrated.
Fifty-six years ago this week, John Lewis was bludgeoned by Alabama state troopers on that bridge in Selma, alongside hundreds of heroic women, men and young people, for claiming a democratic birthright that continues to be denied to many in our own time. “Bloody Sunday,” as it came to be known, continues to haunt our national psyche.
Selma, as it was unfolding and as we look back on it historically, illustrates the bottomless depths and expansive breadth of anti-Black racism. Malcolm X understood this, initially better than Martin Luther King Jr. He reminded Black folk, quite correctly, that full access to democracy was something they never had and warned them it was something they would likely never get. For many, that remains true today.
These truths may not get someone elected, but they are the only chance we have to confront the great historic and contemporary evils that continue to plague us and the world. Bloody Sunday should not be remembered as a triumph of the American spirit. It is a tragic emblem of America’s stubborn, violent failure to recognize Black humanity. The nation still doesn’t recognize it. And it’s not just overt racists or the Republican Party. It. Is. The. Entire. Nation. That is the hardest lesson of Selma, one evident in the latest round of national cruelty to deny Black citizenship and dignity. The scores of voter suppression measures primarily targeting Black voters in Georgia and other states since the Peach State’s January 5, 2021 Senate run-off races should be acknowledged for what they are: old-fashioned anti-Black racism whose origin goes back to Reconstruction.
While Americans should rightfully applaud (and many are) the voter rights advocacy and organizing done by Stacey Abrams, the voter education campaign waged by the WNBA and LeBron James’ continued investment in protecting the franchise for African Americans, the fact that they have to do such work almost 60 years after the Voting Rights Act is a national tragedy.
James’ “More Than a Vote” campaign of voter education, information and protection is laudatory civic action. But just imagine the kind of investments someone with James’s resources and dedication might be able to make in an America with full and fair voting rights access for all. That so many are still spending precious energies, resources and time on something as basic as voting rights underscores the vulnerability of Black citizenship in our own time.
It also highlights our collective moral and political failure to come to terms with Selma’s enduring significance. If we view the civil rights era as a national bedtime story, complete with a beginning, middle and happy ending, then Selma offers a dramatic third-act victory that helped propel the triumph of the first Black president 43 years later. But American history is never that simple. Popular myths about national racial progress treat the blood spilled in Selma as providing a symbolic sacrifice that permanently enshrined Black citizenship and dignity in the national consciousness. As we have all seen in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision that gutted voting rights enforcement, this is patently false.
The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act is the best legislative antidote against this new campaign of legalized voter suppression. Passed in the House of Representatives in 2019, the legislation restores voter rights protections stripped by the Supreme Court and will ensure nationwide voting rights access.
It is no accident that the White siege at the US Capitol building took place the day after Black voters in Georgia helped elect the first Black senator and gave Democrats a razor-thin Senate majority. The vote is one of the most important tools in a democracy to change social and political conditions. Yet the vote is only the beginning, the tip of the spear of the kind of deep citizenship and civic action that propels social justice and human progress. Every inch of ground gained (Senate seats, the White House, the very prospect of bills like the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act or HR1, the For the People Act) prompts inevitable, insidious backlash.
Efforts to build a truly beloved community in America require more than the vote but can only truly begin in earnest with free and unfettered voting rights for all Americans.
The most pernicious aspect of contemporary voter suppression measures winding their way through state legislatures is the way in which they promote former President Donald Trump’s false allegation of voter fraud as a political, legislative, and policy effort to, once again, deny Black voters their just due.
Contemporary voter suppression efforts are simply updated disenfranchisement techniques first institutionalized during the 19th century and now, through the assistance of the former president, the Republican Party and right-wing media outlets, buffed and polished to a high gloss that normalizes anti-Black racism through lies about voter fraud and cheating inevitably occurring wherever Black votes are cast.
But what voting rights advocates characterize as voter suppression doesn’t begin to do justice to the moral and political turpitude underway, nor does it reflect the cascading reverberations that such naked racism against Black folk has on our larger body politic. By forever placing Black people in the position of having to defend their fundamental citizenship rights, the racism behind these political assaults helps to — in the eyes of the public and institutions in our democracy — negate the very idea of Black humanity. Black people remain, as ever, the ground zero to a national discourse around race, identity, and whose lives matter, whose lives don’t, and why.
How can Black folk expect dignity and citizenship in a nation that permits continued attacks on their fundamental right to access the primary vehicle for social, political, and economic change?
That unanswered question continues to haunt America. It deserves special and sustained attention this week as we grapple with commemorations of Selma as a signpost of premature racial progress and celebration, rather than a significant chapter in America’s still unfinished national political saga.
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