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Activists remember historic march as they fight for voting rights protections

"We are fighting that same fight today," Napoleon Mays, 72, said in his speech.
Image: Black Voters Matter Group Gathers In Selma For March To Montgomery
I'munique Liggens, 18, chants Wednesday during the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama.Brandon Bell / Getty Images

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Mary Mays Jackson and her brother, Napoleon Mays, were 13 and 15 when they joined the landmark voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 when it arrived in their county, Lowndes.

They did so against the wishes of their mother, who was pregnant at the time.

"I was willing, even at that young age, to die — if it took death for people to get the right to vote," Jackson, now 70, said in an interview.

The stakes are no less higher now, Jackson and Mays said. The siblings spoke at an event last week in Lowndesboro hosted by Black Voters Matter to raise awareness about the ongoing battle for voting rights in Alabama and across the country. They urged elected officials at all levels to pass voting rights protections and implored people to vote.

Image: Civil Rights Activists Rally At Alabama State Capitol After  Commemorative March From Selma To Montgomery
A supporter holds a sign of the late Martin Luther King Jr. during a rally Friday at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. Brandon Bell / Getty Images

"We are fighting that same fight today," Mays, 72, said during his speech. "We've got a lot of history in Lowndes County. And we've got a lot of work to do here." The weeklong commemoration of the 57th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march concluded Friday with a "Fight for the Vote" rally at the state Capitol in Montgomery. Rep. Terri Sewell is Alabama's lone African American in its seven-member House delegation, even though Black people make up nearly 27 percent of the state's population. (She's also the only Democrat.)

On March 7, 1965, nonviolent voting rights activists, including John Lewis, then 25, were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers. The troopers unleashed tear gas as protesters tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma en route to Montgomery. Lewis, the future congressman from Georgia and civil rights leader who died in 2020, had his skull fractured, and the violent images of the confrontation helped galvanize support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Later that month, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. completed the march from Selma to Montgomery. 

Tear gas fumes filled the air as state troopers, ordered by Gov. George Wallace, broke up a march in Selma, Ala., on what is known as "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965. AP

Local and national voting rights advocates from Black Voters Matter to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund reflected on a political landscape that includes a weakened national Voting Rights Act, Republican-led efforts to pass restrictive voting laws and a stalled effort in Congress to beef up voter protections. 

Cliff Albright, 51, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said he hoped that the various events last week sent a message to President Joe Biden and Congress, as well as to the general public, that voting rights is still a central issue.

"Some people are believing that there's just nothing that can be done until after the midterms, and therefore, we don't need to talk about this issue," he said in an interview. "We think that that would be disastrous. We think that we've got to keep this issue fresh on people's minds, because there's still attacks taking place, and there are still things that can be done even right now."

He pointed to a Republican-backed bill passed last week by Florida legislators that would establish a law enforcement office dedicated solely to investigating election crimes. The bill is intended to intimidate Black voters, Albright and other voting rights advocates said.

Black Voters Matter and some of its partner organizations are considering drafting a voting rights contract, Albright said, a list of bills that candidates would commit to supporting, including the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, which was part of an elections package that collapsed in the Senate this year.

The act aims to require states with a recent record of discrimination in voting rights, mainly in the South, to get federal preclearance before changing their election laws, restoring the preclearance requirement gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. The legislation would also make Election Day a national holiday and allow early voting nationwide.

A voting rights contract would make it easier for people to measure the accountability of elected officials, Albright said. 

Image: Black Voters Matter Group Gathers In Selma For March To Montgomery
Black Voters Matter activists march last Wednesday in Selma, Ala..Brandon Bell / Getty Images

Speakers at last Friday's rally outside the state Capitol included Albright; the Rev. Jesse Jackson; the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival; and Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. All acknowledged that some states have sought to make it harder for Black and poor people to vote, including by rolling back expanded early and mail-in voting access. Several seniors seated in the front row had taken part in the original march.

Stephen A. Green, 29, a pastor in Harlem and the chair of Faith for Black Lives, a faith-based social justice organization, said he traveled to Alabama to attend all of the week's events.

"We're here not just to commemorate but to continue a legacy of courageous leadership for those who stood up through the power of nonviolence," he said. "And now, we're looking for a strategy to be able to fight voter suppression, through direct action, through civil disobedience, through marching, to begin to move the conscience of the nation again."

The keynote speakers called upon voters, young and old, to stay active in the voting rights movement and to keep demonstrating peacefully.

"Movement got us where we needed to get in '65," Albright said. "Movement has gotten us this far on the current legislation. And at the end of the day, it's going to be movement that gets us across the finish line."