Saturday, May 25, 2024

Public Reaction to Bloody Sunday in Selma

March 20, 2007 by  
Filed under Weekly Columns

The public reaction to Bloody Sunday in Selma – where civil rights marchers faced clubs and dogs in a police riot – led directly to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 42 years later, the anniversary of Bloody Sunday enjoyed national attention when the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama converged for the ceremonies.

Senators Obama and Clinton gave virtually simultaneous speeches, carried back to back on the news channels. Both spoke eloquently about the sacrifice, courage, dignity and discipline of the marchers. Both acknowledged that they – or their candidacies – were an offspring of that movement. Both reminded America that while we’ve come a long way, we’ve got a long way yet to go. Both called on a new generation – the Joshua generation, in Senator Obama’s words – to pick up the torch, to put on their marching shoes, and to continue the journey.

Where should that journey go? What dark places need to be lit by that torch? What is the civil rights agenda now? What moral cause calls upon people of conscience?

Dr. Martin Luther King always wanted clarity about the conditions that needed to be change, but also the agenda to effect that change. The civil rights movement inspired everyday heroes, ordinary people, young and old, college educated and school dropouts, rich and poor, to make themselves actors in history. They changed themselves, gained discipline and learned courage, and put aside self-doubts to act boldly to challenge the established order. They practiced non-violence because they sought to appeal to the good in everyone – in their oppressors, in the bystanders, in witnesses across the world.

They had not only a mission, but an agenda. They hoped to change the hearts of men and women – but they also worked to change public policy. They wanted civil rights laws passed – to guarantee equal rights, to open up all public facilities, to protect the right to vote, to stop employment discrimination, to redeem the check, as Dr. King said in the March on Washington, that had been returned marked “insufficient funds.” They marched; they preached; they sacrificed. But they did so to change public policy.

So what is the public policy agenda of the Joshua generation? Here the two Senators were less clear, and less bold than one might want.

Both were better at challenges than offering solutions. “Poverty and inequality matters. Health care matters. The people of the Gulf Coast matter. Our soldiers matter,” said Senator Clinton. Obama was more to the point – defending affirmative action, calling for an end to the unjust discrimination that pervades our criminal justice system, championing equal funding for schools, training for those who lose their jobs. Yet he too focused on challenges – the “gap” in justice, achievement (by which he meant investment), empathy and hope.

Senator Clinton pointed to the trampling of voters’ rights in recent years, from too few voting booths in poor districts to fliers distributed to minority voters with the wrong date and place to vote on them. She called for passage of her Count Every Vote Act that provides federal standards to clean up these abuses. She didn’t mention the worst violation – the state rules that strip voting rights for life from those with a criminal record – even after they have served their time or paid their fine. In a criminal justice system notoriously discriminatory in who gets arrested, who gets charged and what sentences get imposed, this state defined practice strips literally millions of African American and Hispanic voters of their basic right to vote – for life. Not surprisingly, many of the former states of the Confederacy use this to destructive effect. Neither Senator mentioned the glaring fact that the residents of the District of Columbia pay taxes, serve in the military, but have no right to vote – an injustice that continues solely because the majority of those voters are African American, and would likely vote Democratic.

Many activists were dismayed that the anniversary of Bloody Sunday got caught up in presidential politics. Senator Clinton decided to come at the last minute – and bring her husband – in order not to cede this special stage to Senator Obama. I don’t bemoan this reality; I applaud it. With the Democratic nomination wide open, the often spurned base of the Democratic Party will garner both respect and attention. Now we must insist that the attention be turned into an agenda, that the candidates’ charisma and charm be linked to commitments. Selma taught us that citizens of conscience could set the agenda of the nation, and make America better. Now with the candidates seeking support, citizens of conscience once more need to stand up, raise the bar, and set the terms for gaining that support.
By Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

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