President Joe Biden is set to pay tribute to “Bloody Sunday” heroes, joining thousands in the annual celebration of the seminal moment in the civil rights movement that led to the passage of landmark voting rights legislation nearly 60 years ago.
The visit to Selma, Alabama, on Sunday also gives Biden a chance to speak directly to today’s generation of civil rights activists. Many are disappointed that Biden has been unable to fulfill a campaign promise to strengthen voting rights and are eager to see his administration keep the issue on the front burner.
Biden plans to use his remarks to highlight the importance of commemorating Bloody Sunday so that history cannot be erased, while arguing that the fight for voting rights remains integral to providing economic justice and civil rights for Black Americans, according to the White House. officials.
This year’s celebration also comes as the historic city of about 18,000 residents is still digging out the aftermath of January’s EF-2 tornado that damaged or destroyed thousands of properties in and around Selma.
Before Biden’s visit, the Reverend William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, along with six other activists wrote to Biden and members of Congress to express their frustration at the lack of progress on voting rights legislation. They also urged Washington politicians visiting Selma this weekend not to tarnish the memories of late civil rights activists John Lewis, Hosea Williams and others with empty platitudes.
“We’re saying to President Biden, let’s put this in America as a moral issue and show how it affects everybody,” Barber said in an interview. “When voting rights passed after Selma, it didn’t just help black people. Help America itself. We need the President to redefine this: When you block voting rights, you don’t just hurt black people. You are hurting America itself.”
Few moments have had such lasting significance for the civil rights movement as what happened on March 7, 1965, in Selma and the weeks that followed.
About 600 peaceful protesters led by Lewis and Williams had gathered that day, just weeks after the fatal shooting of a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, by an Alabama trooper.
Lewis, who would later serve in the US House representing Georgia, and the others were brutally beaten by Alabama troopers and sheriff’s deputies as they tried to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge at the start of a 54-mile march to the state capital in Montgomery, part of a larger effort to register black voters in the South
Images of police brutality sparked outrage across the country. Days later, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. led the march that became known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” in which protesters approached a wall of police officers on 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 of those rare moments in American history where “history and destiny meet simultaneously.” On March 21, King began a third march, under federal protection, which grew by thousands until they reached the state capital. Five months later, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
As a 2020 White House candidate, Biden has promised to pursue sweeping legislation to strengthen voting rights protections.
Biden unveiled his 2021 legislation — calling it the John Lewis Voting Rights Promotion Act. It included provisions to limit partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, remove barriers to voting and transparency in a murky campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to fund political causes anonymously.
It passed the then-Democratic-controlled House, but failed to garner the 60 votes needed to win passage in the Senate. With Republicans now in control of the House, passage of such sweeping legislation is highly unlikely.
Keisha Lance Bottoms, director of the White House office of public engagement, said Biden understands civil rights activists’ anger at the lack of progress.
“He’s disappointed,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we have to stop. It doesn’t mean we stop pushing the way John Lewis, then 25, led 600 protesters to the bridge in Selma.”
Civil rights activists say the Biden administration can do more on the issue.
Two years ago, on the day of the annual Bloody Sunday observance, Biden issued an executive order asking federal agencies to expand access to voter registration, calling on agency heads to submit plans to allow federal employees to vote or volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers, and more.
But many federal agencies are lagging behind the voter registration provision of Biden’s order, according to a report released Thursday by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Only three of the 10 agencies reviewed — the Departments of the Interior, Treasury and Veterans Affairs — were rated on track to integrate voter registration services into their day-to-day interactions with the public, according to the report.
The group says that if agencies fully implement the voter registration efforts outlined in the executive order, it will generate an additional 3.5 million voter registration applications annually.
“We’re two years into this executive order and two years into this administration, and the agencies have had plenty of time to evaluate and debate,” said Laura Williamson, deputy director for democracy at the left-leaning group Demos.
Selma officials hope Biden will also address the January tornado that devastated the city and exposed poverty issues that have persisted in Selma for decades.
Biden approved a disaster declaration and agreed to provide additional help to clean up and remove the debris, a cost Selma Mayor James Perkins said the small city could not afford on its own. Perkins said Selma still needs more help.
“I understand that other communities our size and our demographics have similar challenges … but I don’t think anyone can claim what Selma has done for this nation and the contributions we’ve made to this nation,” he said.
Chandler reported from Montgomery, Alabama.