While the movie “Selma,” which I watched tonight, portrays a movement of courage and determination of more than 50 years ago, it is haunted by modern-day attitudes and events.
As Martin Luther King Jr. and others marched from Selma to Montgomery, white counter-protestors shouted hateful epitaphs and waved Confederate flags, the same flag that remains for many in the South of symbol of rebellion and pride. For others, then, it is cause for consternation at best and fear at worst. A portion of the Mississippi state flag still features the “stars and bars.”
Most problematic is the legislation at the heart of the movie, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which cleared the way for African Americans and other voters to participate in the electoral process without exclusionary and arbitrary procedures. A 2013 Supreme Court decision essentially gutted major provisions of the law pertaining to states that had long been in violation of or indifferent to election procedures. Congress, despite the urging of President Obama and legislators from both parties, never reinforced the legislation. As President Obama said at a 2015 event marking the Act’s 50th anniversary, significant threats to voter participation remain. “If, in fact, those practices, those trends, those tendencies are allowed to continue unanswered,” the President said, “then over time the hard-won battles of 50 years ago erode, and our democracy erodes. And that means that the decisions that are made in the corridors of power all across this country begin to reflect the interests of the few, instead of the interests of the many.”
And, finally, there in the movie was John Lewis crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Dr. King. A member of Congress from Georgia since 1987, Lewis was in the news this week when he announced he would boycott the inauguration of President Trump. This is the same John Lewis who organized student Civil Rights proponents and endured beatings and serious head injuries in the attempt. The John Lewis who President-elect Trump described in a Tweet as “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!” Lewis’ rationale and claims for sitting out the inauguration are definitely debatable, but “all talk”? “no action”? John Lewis? Really?
All of which is to say, there may have been a victory in the battle portrayed in the movie, but there are reasons to be on guard when it comes to laws that limit who can vote, when, where and how. And not just in the South. TL